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Monday, September 20, 2021

Addressing the quality deficit in India’s technical education

S S Mantha, Ashok Thakur write: There is a need for a truly autonomous quality assurance body at an arms-length from the government, manned by eminent persons both from industry as well as academia

Written by S S Mantha , Ashok Thakur |
Updated: August 9, 2021 9:22:49 am
Not a single industry body, be it CII, FICCI or ASSOCHAM has managed to effectively inform the education planners on the growth in different employment sectors.(Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Engineering is an applied science and therefore its pursuit preconditions a sound knowledge of its civil, mechanical and electrical branches, these being its building blocks. Offshoots like metallurgy and chemical engineering have sprung up from mechanical engineering and a host of other branches like electronics, communications, computer science and IT grew from the electrical branch of engineering. A common thread that bound these specialisations was a sound engineering base rooted in materials, applied physics and thermodynamics.

Private entrepreneurs took the lead to meet the growing demand of the country in technical education in the mid-Eighties, but with little idea of the subject. As a result, the faculty of these institutions drove the agenda of their management — and sometimes their own. When the management’s agenda entered academic bodies of various universities, the first casualty was the curriculum. Important courses such as those mentioned above were the first to be jettisoned since they were both tough to teach for the teachers and tough to pass for the students. Subjects like materials, applied physics and thermodynamics became dispensable. Several universities merrily revised their curriculum at the expense of these courses.

This softening of subjects coupled with unfettered expansion in the early and mid-2000s, though it ensured that everyone who aspired to technical education could find a seat commensurate with his/her abilities, resulted in real dilution of the overall standards in the country. At its peak in 2014-15, AICTE-approved institutes had almost 35 lakh seats, mainly due to the increased employment opportunities in the country. However, a series of reports by this paper in December 2017 revealed no takers for at least 51 per cent of the 15.5 lakh seats in 3,291 undergraduate engineering colleges in 2016-17. These reports laid bare the regulatory gaps, poor infrastructure, lack of qualified faculty and the non-existent industry linkage that contributed to the abysmal employability of graduates from most of these institutes.

Some consolidation is bound to happen in every expanding system, but that also calls for intelligent interventions to connect with the available employment opportunities if the fruits of expansion are to be enjoyed. Since 2015-16, at least 50 colleges have closed each year and this year, AICTE approved the closure of 63 institutes. However, 54 new colleges were approved for the academic year, 2021-22 in backward districts. Similar statistics rule every year. Did anyone also study the available employment opportunities in those districts before approving them? When political and economic reasons override the establishment of new entities, why discuss declining standards? Several such decisions only contributed to the cumulative deterioration of standards overall.

Not a single industry body, be it CII, FICCI or ASSOCHAM has managed to effectively inform the education planners on the growth in different employment sectors. Nor has the government taken any tangible steps to set up an independent body to advise AICTE on this vital aspect. In the absence of any credible information on demand side numbers, investments made by institutions will only be based on perception. Yesterday, it was IT and its applications that propelled a growth in IT and Computer Science courses. Today, it is automation. Be it RPA, AI, ML, blockchain, hard robotics or IOT, the thrust is on complete automation. What happens when these areas get saturated? Several jobs have already disappeared with the base of the pyramid having shrunk considerably.

Lack of adequate number of teachers, lack of quality in those available, inability of the management to make adequate investments in a dynamic environment, lack of employment opportunities, shelf life of skills coming down with every technology-related intervention and a constant experimentation with curriculum have all been the bane of quality in technical education. Rather than being reactive, institutions must proactively define the practicing elements of education. The corrective measures for these shortfalls are technology intensive, are experiential, and need investments in teaching. Colleges are unwilling or not in a position to make those investments resulting in serious decline in quality.

Not all experiments are worth doing though. A constant fiddling with the curriculum, reducing total credits, giving multiple choices in the name of flexibility, dispensing with mathematics and physics at the qualification level, teaching in local languages may all be good arguments, but one must assess their utility and their effect on technical education in the long run. An IT-heavy curriculum in every specialisation is not called for. Reducing total credits has not only reduced the rigour of engineering education, but also meant loss in jobs for several faculty streams. National pride may be non-negotiable, but then will teaching in Marathi or Tamil increase employment opportunities besides causing several pedagogy and copyright-related issues? Is there a national report available on this? Over a period of time, such experiments tend to reduce interest levels in technical education itself.

The ultimate measure of performance is embedded in quality assurance. Various rating and ranking agencies insist that programme and course outcomes are paramount for quality. The larger question, however, is if these can be measured in the spirit in which they are written and if the gap in performance can be used to improve the system akin to a closed loop control system? What if the guaranteed outcomes are not realised? Can the stakeholders sue the administrators on reneging on promises? The need of the hour is to create a truly autonomous quality assurance body at an arms-length from the government, manned by eminent persons both from industry as well as academia.

The education paradigm is staring at a large shift, due to the pressures of a large growing and young population, the exponentially increasing cost of education and the need to reach the unreached with quality, which is being fast forwarded by Covid-19. That being said, Steve Jobs’ words of 2005 ring true — “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” Will we be able to connect ours?

This column first appeared in the print edition on August 9, 2021 under the title ‘Engineering a crisis’. Mantha is Former Chairman AICTE and Thakur Former Secretary GoI, MHRD

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