05 Jan 2016 19:20 IST

The changing face of engineering education

Indo-US body, IUCEE’s initiative will make a difference in the education field

Two months ago, I wrote a provocative article about the sorry state of engineering education which appeared on BusinessLine’s Think pages.

Reactions to the column were mixed. One reader wrote that placing the blame on faculty members was unfair and that students have to assume responsibility too. Another correctly said that India should pursue a strong technical apprenticeship programme that is integrated with the industry — as the Germans do. Still another agreed with the central tenet of the article, saying Indians are more concerned about getting degrees rather than educating themselves.

Importance of engineering

The quality of engineering education is vital to India. Countries around the world rely on our extraordinary human capital to perform Research and Development. We are the world’s largest exporter of software services. Many MBA graduates and Civil Service officers are trained as engineers as well, and nearly a million engineers have migrated to foreign countries in the last 15 years, primarily North America, to create vibrant Diaspora populations that make valuable remittances to families back home.

It is all well to have animated conversations over coffee about why Indian engineering education is not up to the mark. What is commendable, however, is to actually do something about it. And this is where the IUCEE comes in.

What is IUCEE?

The Indo-US Collaboration for Engineering Education (IUCEE) has only one goal in mind: to improve engineering education. It was started in 2007 by Dr Krishna Vedula, Dean Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, by collaborating with over 150 leaders of engineering education and businesses from the US and India.

Each January, international experts from the US travel to India to hold discussions with faculty and administrators from over 70 Indian engineering colleges. They talk about best global practices in teaching and research in various engineering disciplines.

This month, they gather in Pune for four days from January 8, for a conference to help “transform” engineering education. The breakout sessions are expected to include such crucial topics as Governance and Leadership; Innovation and Entrepreneurship; Outcome Based Education; Women in Engineering; and Student Voice in the Transformation Process — topics that are rarely discussed in Indian engineering classrooms.

All for passion

The best part is that the American academics and professionals (from over 50 US institutions) do this for the passion they share, not for compensation. There is clearly a satisfaction that is derived from mentoring your peers. These experts volunteer their expertise, time and other resources, not just once a year in India, but throughout, via webinars and online conferences, beamed to IUCEE member institutions from the US.

To date, over 180 workshops and 400 webinars have been delivered. Getting up at 3.30 am in the US to deliver a webinar to Indian faculty and students at 3 pm IST (meetings are held at a time convenient to Indian audiences) requires a level of commitment that only passion can bring.

(Full Disclosure: I have been contributing time to IUCEE for nearly two years and will be speaking in Pune about the various challenges Indian students face when they pursue US higher education — like record high tuition costs; limited internship and job opportunities because of intense competition and complicated visa rules).

Embraced by students

Dr Vedula told me that the most exciting aspect of these IUCEE events has been the way students embraced the organisation. The so-called “Student Forms” involve student leaders from Indian engineering institutions, practicing skills that they learn in college (and often, those that they don’t).

For example, students take part in defining a project that is critical to the neighbourhood in which the college resides, such as clean water, solid waste disposal or energy efficiency. They work with academics and local industry leaders to research the current state of technology. Then, they use their engineering skills to develop solutions, write papers, get them peer-reviewed and present them at the IUCEE in front of a global audience — in an effort that mixes hard skills with soft ones.

Dr Vedula likens this process to what US academics do throughout their careers when they seek research grants. The ability to bring research money into an institution is critical to the academic’s career and is often a prerequisite to obtain tenure.

Possbile career for MBA?

Tenure is the prized benefit that US universities extend to professors, wherein they are virtually guaranteed a job once they establish their credentials. In a country where layoffs are common, tenure offers US faculty a modicum of stability, insulating them from the ups and downs of job markets.

The ability to communicate ideas and win acceptance is a challenge not limited to US academics alone. It is an issue all of us face every day we go to work. This is not only true in the venture capital world, where sceptical investors have to trust your ideas enough to sink money into them, but is also applicable on a more basic level in the conference room of your office. You can’t get much done if your peers or superiors don’t buy your ideas.

There are plenty of international organisations that are doing great work in the field of education.

As MBA students consider careers, they are well served to think of ways to collaborate with western institutions to improve Indian business education. Some of this has already happened with the successful launch of institutions like the Indian School of Business, but much remains to be done. The IUCEE provides a good model for Indian business schools to emulate, and in typical fashion, improvise.

To read more from the Worldview section, click here .

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