Revamping Technical Education in India

Disclaimer: The context of this article is limited to Computer Science/Information Technology/Information Science undergraduate programs at engineering colleges in India. Nevertheless, extrapolation to other streams might still make complete sense.

According to a 2015 report, 80% of Indian highschoolers were interested in pursuing an engineering career. Apart from the top ~4% who manage to get into the prestigious IITs, IISc, NITs or BITS, the vast majority of the students are left with the option of local engineering colleges in cities and suburbs. Much like our overpopulation woes, we end up producing the largest number of engineers in the world. However, their quality is alarmingly poor and over 80% of them are reported to be unemployable.

Source: National Employability Report

Though there is no official statistic about the total number of ‘engineers’ being generated annually from our colleges, the most credible figure from a Nasscom report and a (rather unprofessionally drafted) All India Survey on Higher Education Report point to a number between 0.8-1 million. (That’s more than the population of some smaller countries).

The I.T. ‘Boom’ which began in the mid-1990s after the liberalization of the Indian economy attracted more students towards the software sector, thanks to the new found fortune of the Indian IT outsourcing giants such as Infosys, TCS, Wipro and the like, leading to relatively decent salaries followed by aspirations of on-site visits, the H-1B and in some cases, the Green Card.

Source: Times of India

With the ever-growing demand, the number of engineering colleges increased exponentially over time. Quality lost to quantity.

A majority of India’s weaknesses arise from the absence of an encouraging ecosystem that fuels innovation. There is really nothing much that supports innovation in India. Despite the current decade being called India’s decade of innovation, India has been ranked at the bottom of the list of 25 countries in terms of its intellectual property (IP) environment
- Richard Rekhy, CEO, KPMG India

While India was generating a large number of engineers, we did very less of actual engineering.

Source: AICTE Dashboard

The so called Indian IT giants are synonymous with Body-Shopping. It doesn’t even matter if the student is a mechanical engineer, for all they care. TCS and Infy is ready to grab `em all and train them to become entry-level Cyber Coolies, working for peanuts. (Basically implying the student’s undergraduate degree is irrelevant). Thanks to Adam Smith’s invisible hand, this is a continuing trend in India. It was a win-win situation (or so they’d like students to believe) for all parties involved:

  • The students graduated as ‘engineers’ after four years of learning/memorizing things which most of them are unlikely to ever apply/use again.
  • The companies got ready-made cheap labor whom they can train and rake in profits through labor arbitrage.
  • The colleges made money all along.

All this was a mutually convenient setup for the vast majority, until now.

A recent conversation at work led to discussing the much-hyped H-1B policy changes. Whether or not it will affect the Indian I.T. industry, it sure is a wake up call for India to stop depending on another country’s policies, (especially with I.T. contributing ~10% of India’s GDP) and make our industry the source of innovation at home, in India. This needs to start at the grass-root level by fixing our broken undergraduate education system. Most city engineering colleges lack both the faculty and the infrastructure to hone a generation of innovators and developers.

Here’s where our colleges can take a leaf out of the U.S. Higher Education System:

  1. Hire technically sound faculty members. A namesake PhD or mere experience of teaching the same course over years doesn’t always translate into effective teaching. Hire faculty with the right knowledge, attitude and communication skills to inspire students. Faculty compensation should be comparable to industry, if not better to ensure talent is retained. Another option is to employ visiting faculty who are primarily employed in the industry, but can offer courses during alternate semesters in the domain of their expertise. Faculty should have complete independence to design the grade distribution of the course. (The best courses I took during my master’s degree didn’t have final exams). Take student feedback very seriously.
  2. Utilize effective Learning Management Systems and academic tools like Google Classroom and teaching aids like Khan Academy Educator. Mandate and encourage the use of version control systems such as Github for submission of assignments and most importantly, enforce stringent academic plagiarism policies. Invest in good servers, clusters and lab machines. Encourage online self-paced learning from resources such as Code Academy, Google Developers and being active on forums such as HackerRank and LeetCode.
  3. Develop and design assignments & projects in a way that the promotes project-based learning and not one based on exams. Assignments may also carry a major share in the final grading. Encourage laptop friendly classrooms and don’t limit learning to a pre-defined set of sub-standard textbooks. Organize monthly hackathons which is a great way for students to network with peers and like minded folks from the industry.
  4. Update the curriculum to be closely aligned with emerging research and technologies. For starters, Computer Science, Information Science and Information Technology are not the same. The curriculum needs to be drafted in accordance with the respective stream and technologies involved, considering what tools and programming laguages are most in demand for jobs or reseach in that domain. As an instance:

The present 4-year undergraduate course structure at Visvesvaraya Technological University, one of India’s largest Universities, is largely ineffective.

An alternate approach could be:

  • First year focusing on stream specific foundation courses where students learn the basics of Computer Science such as Data Structures, Algorithms, Operating Systems and Object Oriented Programming.
  • Second year covering introductory courses to Databases, and higher level languages like Java, Python, C# and R, complemented with courses in Web Technologies like HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript.(And get someone to build AICTE a better website).
  • Summer Internships should be encouraged by following a Fall (Sep-Dec) & Spring (Jan-May) semester cycle where the students get a full Summer (May-Aug) to pursue an internship. This would give them much needed exposure and understanding of how industry/academic research functions.
  • Third year offering courses which lets students try areas of specialization such as Machine Learning, Data Science & Analytics, Information Security, Parallel Systems, Artifical Intelligence, Data Science and the like. This is a great time to get explore academic papers and even start writing one.
  • Final year based on a co-op model where students earn credits for taking a semester-long internship, capstone project, or even come back to school and try out a new area of specialization.

A disruptive revamp at the undergraduate level with a focus on helping students strengthen their fundamentals, backed by exposure to opportunities is the need of the hour. This would not only enable the students to take up niche technical jobs right out of college and eliminate the need for talent to go out of the country in search of better education/jobs, but also contribute Reverse Brain Drain. Engineering colleges need to stop being feeders of support jobs for mass recruiters and strive to be hubs of innovation. We need to go wild with open-source and embed an entrepreneurial mindset. Students need to have the independence to gauge their strengths, evaluate their interests and pivot to an area of specialization where they can excel as true engineers.