Indian engineers may figure among the most powerful CEOs in the world, but the country’s BTech/BE degree has lost its sheen over the years. According to a survey conducted by Aspiring Minds- an employability assessment company, 80 per cent of Indian engineers are unemployable for any job in the knowledge economy. Notably, the Human Resource Development Ministry’s AISHE 2019 report stated that engineering and technology is the fourth major stream in India with 38.52 lakh students enrolled in various institutes – including both government and private.
During the boom in the IT industry, engineering colleges mushroomed all across the country. But these institutes lacked an updated curriculum and focused on non-existent linkages with industry and had poor student-faculty ratio. Except the IITs, a few NITs and some private engineering colleges, these new institutes failed to make their students job-ready. As per a recent report, engineers applied for Group D level jobs where the minimum qualification required is not more than class 12 passing certificates.
In 2017-18, less than 50 per cent students got jobs from AICTE-approved engineering colleges. Of the 7.92 lakh students who graduated, only 3.59 lakh secured employment through campus placements (data shared by HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal in Lok Sabha this year). These figures do not include students who got jobs outside of campus placements, who are self-employed or opted for higher studies.
The Indian Express in 2017 reported how uneven growth in engineering colleges over the last decade left seats vacant, which led to devalued degrees. Read the report | In its desperation to fill seats, many colleges lowered the bar and hired middlemen.
In 2016-17, of the 15.5 lakh undergraduate seats in 3,291 engineering colleges in India, almost 51 per cent were vacant, as per All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), the apex body for technical education in the country. This year too, of nearly 14.9 lakh seats, roughly 10 lakh were filled. States like Odisha, West Bengal have done poorly registering less than 50 per cent student intake.
In an interview with the Indian Express, AICTE Chairman Anil Sahasrabudhe said the root problem is the large number of private and deemed universities which are not under the purview of AICTE. “The qualifying criteria were probably relaxed to increase the gross enrollment ratio, cater to increased demand, but no one followed up to check if the institutes were eventually following rules,” he said.
Unlike engineering institutes whose intake is monitored by the apex body, there is no limit on private universities and deemed universities offering BTech courses.
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Non-performing institutions were shut down
In 2011-11, about 451 new engineering colleges were opened that included 331 offering undergraduate course. But since 2016, many of these institutes have been closed. The HRD minister informed the Lok Sabha in the Winter Session that since 2016, the AICTE closed 128 engineering colleges across the country. Year-wise, in 2018-19, a total of 26 engineering colleges were shut down, followed by 55 in 2016-17 and 47 in 2017-18.
In 2017, AICTE announced to shut down colleges which didn’t fill more than 30 per cent of the total seats over the last five years. The Indian Express in January reported that no new engineering colleges will be opened. Following the recommendations by a committee headed by IIT-Hyderabad chairman BVR Mohan Reddy, only existing engineering institutes were allowed by the AICTE to either start programmes in new technologies or convert current capacity in traditional engineering disciplines to latest technologies.
Why did so many engineering colleges mushroom?
The country experienced an IT boom between 2000 to 2015. Many institutions were set up during this period to cater to this need and India did reap benefits by supplying IT knowledge workers to companies across the world. But the economic slump of 2008 and massive automation introduced in the sector, had an adverse impact on these institutes.
Former HRD secretary Ashok Thakur noted that the issue was debated several times in AICTE and the consensus was that it would not be legally correct to impose a blanket ban on setting up new institutions. “The state governments were taken on board on this and their views differed from one another. It was thought that such issues cannot be regulated artificially and is best left to be decided by the market forces with the survival of the best performers,” said Thakur.
In 2003, the UR Rao Committee had suggested a five-year moratorium on fresh approvals for undergraduate technical education institutes in states where the student intake exceeded the then national average of 150 seats per million population. However, the government did not follow the recommendations.
Making the situation worse, the industry bodies had never come up with credible figures of employment opportunities in different sectors. “Even NASSCOM, which predominantly looked at the IT sector, never mapped the industry and its potential growth. AICTE by itself could not estimate the industry requirements. Hence, education entrepreneurs saw an opportunity in the education sector and made the best of it. This is a recipe for oversupply in some and under supply in other sectors,” said Thakur.
More seats, shrinking jobs: What’s the solution?
Leaving aside top engineering colleges like IITs, the rest struggle to provide placements. In other institutions, the teaching-learning process is predominantly theoretical. Their curriculum is not aligned to the needs of the industry or society.
The recent Aspiring Minds report found that only 40 per cent of engineering graduates end up doing an internship and 36 per cent take up any projects beyond coursework. “There is a lack of faculty talking about industry application of concepts in class or students getting exposure through industry talks. These need to be remedied by aligning incentives of all stakeholders, building capacity and gamification,” said Aspiring Minds co-founder Varun Aggarwal in the report.
Producing quality engineers is also a function of the availability of funds. The Centre has always given priority to IITs over other institutes. Thakur remarked, “Each IIT is funded to the extent of Rs 500 crore every year to produce 1000-odd engineers. At the state level, an institute gets hardly 20-25 crore per year. A few private institutes invest more but nowhere near what the IIT’s get. Competency-based skills can be built to fit the needs of an industry, but it comes at a cost,’ said Thakur.
How can the government control and improve quality?
At the UG level, this year for the first time, all BE/ BTech seats were filled at the IITs. To ensure other colleges students also get placed, the HRD has introduced various initiatives including making internships must for students, setting up new contemporary labs in artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud computing and IoT and so on.
The Government of India is also implementing the Technical Education Quality Improvement Programme (TEQIP) Phase-III where the institutions are given financial support to improve their quality.
“The funding of technical education must be enhanced manifold. The recent decision of the government to cut-off all PG scholarships will only result in a serious slide in the enrollment. This directly affects the PhD programmes besides bringing down the research quotient,” remarked Thakur. Also, the government must clearly promote technical education as a separate entity. “The recent Supreme Court order virtually making AICTE redundant must be addressed quickly so that a regulatory vacuum does not kill technical education. The ‘now on, now off’ merger with UGC does not help matters,” Thakur added.
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