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Mending engineering education

Over the past decade, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of educational institutions dispensing technical education in India. During the past five years the number of engineering colleges has more than doubled from 1,350 to over 3,000 currently, with an aggregate enrolment of 3.2 million students. In the southern state of Andhra Pradesh the number of engineering colleges has risen from 240 in 2005 to 680 currently; in West Bengal from 60 to 220, and in Uttar Pradesh from 90 to 350.

However, Indian industry still complains there isnt enough trained technical talent in the country to meet its requirements. Thats because less than 25 percent of the graduates of the countrys 3,000 engineering colleges are employable, and even the best graduates need three-six months of intensive training to become job ready.

Therefore the question arises: why is the output of our academic system failing to meet the requirements of industry? While there are several reasons, the most significant is that engineering colleges and the academic system in general, dont have adequate understanding of the needs of Indian industry. Lack of exposure to industry leads to several problems discussed hereunder.

Examinations vs. skills development. The technical education curriculum should develop key skills such as problem solving and process design. These skills are industry agnostic and apply to all roles that need techn-ical resources. However, the bulk of learning in our institutions is centred around passing exams that encourage rote-memorisation of content. This results in students being under-skilled in key areas.
The root cause of this problem is the comfort zone of teachers. Most teachers have a good understanding of the examination system and are able to mentor students to excel in them. But since the majority of teachers dont understand the needs of industry, they are unable to prepare students for workplace environments.

Industry context ignorance. If engineering college faculties are divorced from industry, students will fail to appreciate why they are studying a particular subject. Inevitably, they dont consciously develop the skill-sets valued by industry. Students tend to study every subject merely out of academic interest or obligation and perhaps with equal emphasis. Therefore its of critical importance that faculty develop close links with India Inc to prepare students to apply engineering theory on the shopfloors of industry.

Fast changing industry landscape. The industrial landscape in India is changing. And changing fast! Every three-four years, new career opportunities emerge for students — opportunities that were perhaps unknown when they entered collegiate education. Careers in ethical hacking or in the KPO (knowledge process outsourcing) industry were unheard of five years ago.

Since teachers with industry exposure can solve so many problems of Indian technical education, it is imperative to accelerate and deepen interaction between India Inc and academia, and engineering and technical education institutions in particular. Some suggestions to accelerate and deepen the academia-industry interaction are set out below.

Create a culture of industry orientation in academia. The foremost requirement is to acknowledge the need for industry-academia interaction. Institutional managements need to insist upon industry knowledge among teachers and stress that preparing students to be industry ready is as important as helping them to pass academic exams. Therefore institutional managements need to encourage industry-academia seminars, site visits and secondary learning through research.

Industry vs. academic projects. While most technical institutes mandate project assignments, teachers assign students with academic rather than industrial projects. For example, in the area of engineering, students are encouraged to complete IEEE projects rather than industry related ones. While theres nothing wrong with pure research-oriented assignments, fostering a balance of industry and academic projects, will result in a better understanding of industry needs.

Consulting work. Teachers should solicit and undertake consulting assignments from industry. Moreover, college managements should invite professionals from industry to assess students project assignments and involve college faculty to assist business professionals in their day-to-day work.

With Indian industry incurring perhaps the worlds highest corporate training costs because of the unpreparedness/under-preparedness of college and university graduates, this issue has assumed critical importance. Vast resources are being invested in collegiate education with low returns in terms of tangible gains for industry and society. On the contrary, high personnel training costs are hurting the competitiveness of Indian industry in the emerging global marketplace. Therefore accelerating and deepening industry-academia interaction is an issue which requires urgent national attention.

(Amit Bansal is founder-director of PurpleLeap, a Bangalore-based training company)

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