28 Jun 2021 20:15 IST

Tech education needs a complete overhaul

‘Academic strategists’ experienced in a global academic set-up are needed for fresh ideas

India desperately needs its own MAGA (Make Academia Great Again’ movement. Especially, in the area of technical education. I am an engineer who fled the country to do a Masters, just like many others of my ilk. Every weekend the routine is to get-together with some friends, break bread, appreciate the technical education system in the EU and the US. The discussion usually has someone saying, “Bro, we learnt nothing in engineering” (read it in Danish Sait’s voice). Though I don’t completely agree with that statement, I have to admit that there are some elements of truth to it. Let’s get serious and crunch some numbers, shall we?

Of a million students who take up the JEEs, less than 1 per cent make the cut to the 23 IITs, 31 NITs, and one IISc. While there is no doubt that some of the IITs and the IISc are world-class institutions, the fact of the matter is, these numbers don’t justify a a country this obsessed with engineering. It is heartening to read stories every year about how a son or a daughter of an autorickshaw driver or a cobbler from a rural part of India made it to this top 1 per cent. What is the difference in quality between that top 1 per cent and the next, say, 10 per cent? I suspect, the difference is less than 5 marks in the exam. How many sons and daughters from rural India will be in this 10 per cent? How many untold stories are there? What about the next 25 per cent or even 50 per cent? One bad nervous morning and you don’t make the cut. It’s simply cruel!

Research takes backseat

Let’s address the elephant in the room. The private engineering colleges located in every nook and cranny of our cities shoulder the major responsibility of training the remaining 99 per cent. These colleges dish out 1.5 million engineers every year, out of which only less than 20 per cent are directly employable in their respective fields. Barring a few exceptions, it is safe to say that the majority of these colleges are lowering the bar. Terms such as ‘faculty development programmes,’ ‘on-campus quality assessment centers,’ ‘state of the art R&D,’ can be seen on the rather colourful websites of these colleges. However, are these being meaningfully implemented? Do they have a positive impact on the outcome? Is everything hunky-dory and am I being an unnecessary alarmist? If your answer is yes, this article ends here for you. Ciao! Just like me, if you also feel something stinks, read on!

While many people tend to blame the quality of students for the declining quality of technical education, I, for one, do not believe in this theory. At the tender age of 18-21, the students are usually malleable. They are simply as good as the exposure they get. I blame the institutions. In most of these colleges, shots are called by the people in management who do not necessarily qualify as academicians in real sense. With focus on bi-monthly internals, semester exams, and placements; research and innovation take a back seat or worse, they don’t even board the car. As snobbish as I might sound here, the projects carried out by the students in their final semesters do not account for anything (yes! I include mine too here).

Drastic measures needed

The system desperately cries for an overhaul. There is a need for ‘academic strategists’ (a profession similar to that of election strategists) who are trained/experienced in an international academic setup who can bring new ideas to the table. The managements can hire these academic strategists to assess the strengths and weakness in their structure and hopefully have a prescribed course correction and implement their ideas. There is a revolutionary change in the edtech industry in the recent years. Millions of dollars are being invested in these companies which prepare students for the entrance exams. But isn’t what you do after admission more important? It’s time venture capitals step up and invest in academic strategists and encourage them to fix one institution at a time. After all, their start-up market depends on the quality of engineers.

The large economy of India needs a constant supply of qualified and skilled engineers. I think the government also recognises the problem in hand. In 2017, the Centre allowed 100 per cent foreign direct investment in education which encourages many reputed universities from the West to set up their institutions in India. With easing regulations, this might very well be a reality in the near future. Its high time our indigenous private colleges up their game or face Darwin’s law of natural selection.

(The writer is a research scientist at the German aerospace center Institute of Aerodynamics and Flow Technology.)