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Solution to the engineering sector: Infrastructure, not buzzwords

In a recent interview, the AICTE Chairman Anil Sahasrabudhe said, “the economy can’t run only on computer science or electronics, it requires civil and mechanical engineering, too” (IE, July 4). But there are so many civil and mechanical engineers graduating every year. So what is the issue? Either there are not enough jobs to absorb them, or, these jobs are so low paying that these engineers prefer to become coders and analysts. If the core industry is struggling to recruit, all they would need to do would be to pay more to attract students away from coding and analyst jobs.

However, AICTE thought leaders seem to have a very different perception of the problem — and the solution. The Chairman’s lament relates to institutions shutting down these disciplines due to a lack of demand by students. In their minds, the cause of this “problem” is that the curricula of such conventional disciplines are “outdated”, the graduating students are not “industry-ready” and institutions do not impart the spirit of entrepreneurship. All that needs to be done is to simply add some “exciting” AI and ML (artificial intelligence and machine learning) and VR (virtual reality), along with a dash of startup spirit, to solve the “problem”.

The dead horse of “outdated” syllabus has been flogged too often. There is very little that gets outdated in the core concepts of any conventional engineering branch. Some new examples get added, some new software tools become available, and most of the new or advanced material is added through elective courses. Even in top-tier institutions, where curricula tend to be the “latest” and include doses of AI/ML, there is reasonable student disinterest in these disciplines. In fact, students take up these new electives and minors to transcend the branding of their profiles beyond their native branch so that they can appear more employable to recruiters from the software/finance/analytics sectors. AI/ML/VR, as topics of study, may be important in some contexts of some conventional engineering disciplines but they are not a cure-all for the declining student interest in core engineering.

A much-touted bogey is the lack of industry-readiness in graduating students. This is only partially true and is mostly because student disinterest in core engineering courses builds up quite early in college, based on their perceptions about the “job market”. On the other hand, the ironic fact is that most conventional engineering industries in India are quite backward (with some honourable exceptions). Such companies thrive on licenced or purchased technology and have little interest in anything advanced or cutting edge. They do little or no research and development (R&D) themselves, and often the implementation of routine processes, lab testing and quality control checks are presented as “R&D”. Indian companies that delve into research that may result in technology creation are minuscule. These enterprises misconstrue any kind of advanced material as “theoretical”. This label is then stuck even to students who have studied engineering subjects seriously.

The other buzzwords doing the rounds are “start-ups” and “entrepreneurship”. It is one thing to encourage start-ups and entrepreneurship but quite another to promote the wholesale hype that surrounds this. Start-ups are not — and never will be — a solution to the unemployment crisis. Merely establishing innovation councils or organising hackathons does not do anything to unleash any real innovation — a word used so widely so as to make it devoid of any original meaning. There is a pretence of being great disruptors, but the “dream” is mostly to make “millions of dollars”’ by being bought out quickly. Unsurprisingly, in almost all cases the great “innovative idea” of the start-up has nothing to do with the engineering discipline the student comes from. This hype, when pursued in the middle of a degree, distracts students from academic commitments (and related learning), and embellishes the “the dropout is a great innovator” myth.
Then there are the great narratives about teacher training and how this will improve engineering education. This seems sensible but it needs to be asked: What kind of training are we referring to? Purportedly, this training will suddenly make teachers turn into geniuses.

Routine skills — making lesson plans, using audio-visual devices, dealing with basic software — associated more with short orientations are presented as path-breaking “training”. There is also mention of things like “how to incorporate AI/ML/VR in classrooms”. In the AICTE game-plan, some 8-10 “training modules” will provide all that is necessary to overcome barriers posed by an “examination system based on rote-learning” and promote the use of “questions that test understanding of the subject, critical thinking, analytical ability, data analytics and creativity.” Some stupendous training this must be.

While many of these “solutions” produce a positive optics of “doing so much”, the impact on the ground is to draw away focus from the real issues that are troubling engineering education.

First, the biggest problem that hinders any meaningful innovation is the nature of school education, which hobbles incoming students into the college system. Students undergo a rote, mechanical education in schools, spend time studying for “irrelevant” board exams, and mostly suffer through a debilitating coaching experience. There is little room for nurturing creativity. This begs the question: When will school education actually see real, substantive reforms?

Second, why are there large faculty shortages across our institutes and universities? Most public institutions also face severe shortfalls in infrastructure and funding needed for their development. Budget cuts have adversely affected even operational funding. The expectation that EdTech (and EdTech companies) will now step in to “augment” the situation simply creates illusions of a campus-less university and a teacher-less classroom. When has Edtech ever been interested in wholesome education?

Third, there is no escape from the fact that if core engineering is to become “great again” we need more jobs — well paying, competitive and creative ones — in the relevant sectors. This requires a large expansion of the manufacturing and infrastructure sectors and not just clever-sounding slogans. In a globalised world where anything can be manufactured anywhere this is a hard task. Merely “motivating” students to take up core engineering disciplines as if this is a national duty (“the country needs such engineers”) or a demonstration of loyalty to an engineering branch is naive.

The writer teaches engineering and policy at IIT Bombay

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