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HomeEducationEngineering education in India- a farce?

Engineering education in India- a farce?

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"Engineering is the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man." - Thomas Tredgold
Engineering education in India- a farce?

During the visit of PM Narendra Modi to the USA, General Electric Aerospace and HAL have signed an MoU to produce fighter jet engines for the IAF with the potential to jointly produce the F414 INS6 engine, which will power the heavier Tejas Mark II aircraft, making it a great boost to defence besides proof of New India’s elevated status in the international arena.

Does it mean the end of the Kaveri Engine Program?

However, the fact remains that we needed this because our engineers could not make a satisfactory indigenous Kaveri engine for the Tejas. The Kaveri engine program was launched by the Gas Turbine Research Establishment way back in 1989 as one of the five self-reliance goals identified for the LCA Programme with 1996 as the target date. However, it ran into problems and since 2004, America’s General Electric F404-GE-IN20 engines have been powering Tejas variants. The Tejas Mark II which is nearly four tons heavier than the Mark I, will be powered by the General Electric F414 INS6 engine.

If, after 34 years and having spent Rs. 2101 crore, the nation is still not able to develop Kaveri, it raises serious doubts about our engineering education as well as our premier institutions.

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Where has our engineering education faltered?

North Korea is a country in isolation. Their scientists do not travel abroad for conferences. In 2010, the New York Times had described the country as a ‘hermit kingdom’, so poor that they face severe shortages of rice, petrol, and even underwear!

Yet, they have successfully tested Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles and Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles and, according to NORSAR (Norwegian Seismic Array), their largest nuclear test explosion had a yield of some 250 kilotons!

These are, by any standard, astounding technical achievements; particularly for a country that has just 43 engineering colleges! It proves they lack food; they certainly don’t lack brains. Even if they had some covert collaboration with Pakistan and Iran as is popularly alleged, that was certainly not critical because Pakistan and Iran have not been able to make ICBMs and SLBMs.

We, on the other hand, have 4,443 engineering colleges that churn out some 15 lakh engineers every year. We rate our engineering colleges not by the number and quality of research papers they publish, but by their ‘placement’ record, that is, the salary packages their students receive!

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Recently, V. Kamakoti, the Director of IIT Madras commented that he was deeply concerned over more and more engineers opting for non-engineering career choices as that was a “waste of resources”. He found alumni from IIT Madras pursuing careers in ‘big four’ companies, such as marketing or high-frequency trading that have nothing to do with their engineering education. He was correct on the waste of (national) resources in imparting them subsidized engineering education but legally, it is their ‘freedom of choice’ to abandon engineering for heftier pay packages in non-core engineering jobs. Though most Indians would still give their right eyes to get a Green Card, now MNC jobs in the service sector, with ‘analytics’ in international finance are considered very attractive options.

Business Tricks of IT Companies

Engineering students of any branch other than electronics or computer science are not imparted any such training during their courses that should enable them to be hired by IT companies. However, given the sheer diversity of the branches from which they recruit, it means there is no significance of an engineering degree in the first place. Theoretically, they could hire graduates of any field with some coding skills.

Still, they insist on hiring engineers from reputed colleges because it helps them build up their own brand value by riding piggyback on the brand value of the colleges, and also to show off their bench strength—a mutually symbiotic relationship for both, with colleges projecting hefty pay packages and companies citing the pedigree of colleges as ‘proofs’ of their distinction. They are able to pay much better than core engineering companies because of far lower production, maintenance and marketing costs. Engineering education becomes the unwitting victim of such business tricks.

Why the IITs have failed in ‘inventing’ advanced technology?

Forget graduate engineers, we must ask about the contribution of the MTechs and PhDs of the IITs to technology in the country that has made a significant impact on our lives. In fact, in ISRO, one of our few success stories, only 2% of the engineers come from IITs and NITs. Why did they not pitch in for research vital for the nation? And, if they did, of what use is their so-called excellence if they could not make a turbofan engine that was made in the USA back in 1978!

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Kaveri is not the only example. The IITs have not made any significant contribution to any defence project including the diesel engine for the Arjun tank, Arihant nuclear submarine or for that matter, anything that touches and impacts the lives of crores of people, such as cars or bikes, not to speak of things like microprocessors! Except for the unsuccessful Tata Indica, all of the remaining 33 crore vehicles in the country still run on engines designed outside the country!

The Department of Higher Education states that the focus on research in the IITs is to complement the renewed focus of the government on developing indigenous R&D capabilities; boosting manufacturing; providing solutions to the most relevant engineering challenges and translating knowledge into viable technology in 10 selected technology domains, namely, health care, energy, sustainable habitat, nanotechnology hardware, water resources and river systems, advanced materials, information and communication technology, manufacturing, security and defence, and environmental science and climate change; besides something called Ucchtar Avishkar Yojana.

Also Read: IITs and the IIMs: neither the best nor ideal

We must ask what they have done in this regard. Which higher-level invention (ucchtar avishkar) they have made? What is the nation getting in return for the Rs. 9,661.50 crore it is spending in a year on the IITs and Rs 4,820.60 crore on the NITs? What exactly is their contribution to the development of sophisticated technology in the country, and is it commensurate with the expenditure?

We have 23 IITs in the country. According to the Council of Indian Institute of Technology, from 2011 until 2022, they have been granted a total of 1,792 patents. This comes to an average of just 7 patents per IIT per year! And even for that, we have to ask ourselves, what difference these patents have made to our lives? Which one of these do we actually use in our daily lives? Getting a patent is no proof that the invention will be useful as well as commercially viable.

Prof. Milind Sohoni of IIT Bombay also agrees that the training and pedagogy at the IITs have little connection with “concrete problems of interest to society at large”. He opines, “Do we teach them how to structure and formalise the problems that they see? Do we provide them with the sectoral knowledge and data that is needed to solve these? The answer is a resounding no…They have little to write or profess about most topics on which the people long for a factual analysis, for example, the recent railway accident or the groundwater situation in their state.”

This disconnect must also be viewed in the backdrop of the fact that in the JEE Advanced, our entrance examination, the final success rate is just 0.04%. Does it mean that we admit only geniuses to IITs? If so, then how do we reconcile the toughness of the admission process with the same students’ extremely poor and negligible output in research and innovation after the degree? The huge success of the Kota and Hyderabad coaching institutes confirms that they prepare the aspirants only for ‘structured problem solving’ and not for ‘creative problem solving’, not to speak of any out-of-the-box thinking on their own.

Innovation is a different ball game altogether

We would not like to indulge in any debate about the quality of education in our engineering colleges. The simple fact is that throughout the English-speaking world, more or less the same textbooks are used. If having studied from the same textbooks, students of other countries are able to innovate but our students are not, it raises serious questions about our engineering education. Either our students are incapable of thinking for themselves, or the system does not allow them to think. If the mushrooming of graduate engineer-producing factories proves anything, it is that running private engineering colleges is a very successful business model in India.

For those who are not able to visualize what we mean by innovative skills and out-of-the-box thinking for real-life problems, we suggest they must watch on YouTube a TV series called ‘Junkyard Wars’. Two rival teams of four persons each from different colleges in the USA were given the task of building some kind of fully functional real-life machines in a limited time, using only the items found in a 5-acre junkyard. After completion, the two teams had to pit their creations against each other to find out who had put together the best solution to the challenge. It was a demonstration of practical, innovative engineering at its best. And, lest you think it was mechanics’ job, note that it demanded great theoretical knowledge too. They had to first conceive the machine in theory on the blackboard and then fabricate it.

Producer Eve Kay got the idea of this show after watching a scene in the movie ‘Apollo 13’, where NASA engineers had only a short period of time to construct a carbon dioxide filter out of parts available on the space capsule. That was practical engineering at its best. We throw an open challenge. Let any engineering college public or private, in India, try this and let us see how their graduates fare.

Finally, we must put an end to the usual rhetoric. There may not be enough employment opportunities for core engineering jobs in the country. But, that is not related to their innovative capacity. Do they mean to say that if we had enough employment for graduate engineers, we would have been manufacturing jet engines and microprocessors for devices ranging from computers to mobile phones and household appliances?

We have been told countless times in real life and even in novels written by a former mechanical engineer-turned-investment banker-turned-novelist that it is the pressure of the family or society that most of the students join engineering courses, without any desire or aptitude of their own. May be true, but it is their life, their decision and their problem—the nation cannot be bothered with cry-babies.

In retrospect

In all fairness, the farce of engineering education is symptomatic of and a consequence of the farce of education in general, with pure sciences and humanities in the same league. The ‘CBSE Syndrome’ of giving even 100% marks through overly liberal evaluation based on ‘structured answers’ has irretrievably put an end to any independent thinking by the students. No wonder, not one of these ‘100% marks kids’ has been able to make any original contribution in any field.   

For our engineering to help in devising real-life solutions, engineering students must be given ‘hands-on’ experience with real-life problems. Unfortunately, when engineering education was a relatively rarer commodity, it developed an elitist mindset, which proactively discouraged any ‘hands-on’ learning, subconsciously associating it with technicians, identified as people of lower intellect and skills. Eventually, it engendered a system where an engineering degree was reduced to a mere certificate to qualify for a desk job.

At a policy level, while liberalization has been a boon for the overall economy, the relatively free import of technology for myriad products also meant that competitive indigenous technology could not be developed. Indian markets could flourish; Indian ‘design talent’ perished in the process. Indian space industry could make great strides for the simple reason that due to international restrictions, imports were just not available.

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Dr. N. C. Asthana & Rakesh Asthana
Dr. N. C. Asthana & Rakesh Asthana
Dr. N. C. Asthana, IPS (Retd) is a former DGP of Kerala. He has authored 51 books on terrorism, strategic studies, military science, and internal security. Rakesh Asthana is an alumnus of IIT-BHU (Mechanical Engineering-1980) and IIM Calcutta (Operations & Finance-1983). He has been a very senior techno-commercial professional with long innings in corporate top management as Advisor/CEO/Strategy Consultant etc., mainly in rubber and metal industry. He specializes in manufacturing excellence and supply chain management practices. He has also been guest faculty at BITS, Pilani (Dubai).


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