India's engineering education needs R&D push
A few years ago, five M.Tech students of agricultural engineering from one of the top agricultural universities of Maharashtra came to our Institute for a four-month internship. One day, during their internship, we had some visitors to whom I was showing our electric trike. While running it, a knob came off its switchboard. To fix it, I asked one of the interns to get me a plier. He brought me a spanner instead! He did not know the difference between the two.
These students during their B.Tech and M.Tech had never worked with their hands or had even seen farm machinery and did not know anything about simple workshop equipment. They had passed engineering examinations without learning anything of practical value.
According to the latest statistics, only 6-7 per cent of India's engineering graduates are employable in the core engineering sector and these interns clearly were part of the trend.
I feel that it is not the students' fault but that of a corrupt and broken teaching system, which fleeces them. There are few good teachers of engineering, but by and large most are mediocre (even in IITs) and the stress is more on passing examinations rather than a hands-on learning experience.
In university after university and in various IITs, I have found that most of the students do not want to do any engineering but opt for MBAs, civil services and software-oriented programmes. The main reason is that they are not challenged to do any hardware-oriented engineering because of the lack of good teachers.
The teaching in most of the engineering colleges, including IITs, has been deteriorating for the last 20-30 years and is currently quite mediocre with most of the faculty not up-to-date in engineering research. In fact, IITs are consistently rated quite low in international university rankings.
Four years of engineering education is a sufficiently long time to inspire the students to take up a career in engineering. The fact that only a handful of students who pass out every year opt for an engineering or a research career shows that very little of good engineering is taught.
Most of the engineering colleges have ad hoc staff and fresh graduates become teachers. Even in IITs around 50 per cent of faculty positions are vacant. The government, in its wisdom, thinks that giving higher pay will help attract good faculty to these Institutes. This is a myth because great teachers are not attracted only by pay but by the scholarship environment of doing good research and teaching. Great engineering colleges the world over produce a good number of excellent researchers, some of whom also become great teachers.
Also, some of the problems with engineering education have been created by information technology (IT) companies themselves. In the past, these companies have heavily recruited from IITs and other good engineering college campuses. In fact, not long ago there used to be a saying "anything that moves in IIT gets a job in Infosys". This resulted in making most of the students complacent and bunking classes since they knew that they will be taken by IT companies irrespective of their grades. With this attitude, it becomes very difficult for students to learn anything.
So, what needs to be done? One of the ways forward is to create a great research and scholarship environment in IITs and engineering colleges. This can happen when faculty and students work on problems of India -- especially for rural areas. Providing basic necessities to 60 percent of our rural population is a huge technological challenge and R&D on this should come from good engineering colleges. At the same time, emphasis should be laid on faculty spending time in industry. This trend is prevalent in European and American universities and needs to be emulated in India.
Another way is for excellent engineers both in India and abroad to be invited to give lectures in engineering colleges. In addition, there are a good numbers of Indians who work as engineering faculty abroad in good schools and come on a yearly visit to India. The HRD Ministry should create systems where both groups are encouraged to teach in engineering colleges at their convenience.
A good way for students to be involved in R&D is for them to spend one or two years doing work or internships in industries and in rural science and technology NGOs. If they understand real-life problems, they will be able to provide practical solutions to them.
Once the R&D bug gets into their head, it will automatically manifest itself in innovative solutions. This R&D bug should be put into these students even during their school days by following the US-based Maker Movement (MM). The US had an old tradition of youngsters tinkering in their garages on amateur radios, making small household items, etc. With the computer revolution, youngsters stopped tinkering and moved into playing with their iPads, iPods, phones and the like. With 3D printing technologies, US schools are now making students interested in creating designs, toys and new inventions. Once bitten by this bug, it is assumed that the students will be more involved in engineering by innovating and creating hardware-oriented products during their college days.
The future of India belongs to the younger generation. All of us have to do our bit to get them involved in improving the lives of Indians. If we do not do so, there will be serious social conflicts. Unless we can provide basic amenities so that the rural poor can live a meaningful life, we will never become a great nation. This is a great challenge for all young engineers and it is my dream that they will take it up to make India a better place to live and work.