Friday, June 22, 2012

The Challenges Before Indian Engineering Education

Engineering education in India has been under the spotlight in the last few weeks due to the controversy surrounding the new admission test structure for admission to the IITs. But a few other developments of the last week reflect both the challenges and bright spots of Indian engineering education.

In an article in The Hindu provocatively titled "The Enigma of Indian Engineering," James Trevelyan of the University of Western Australia argues that effective engineering needs a good understanding of organizations and people. Without these, engineering is ineffective, resulting in high costs and poor services. When Trevelyan refers to “hierarchical organizations, language differences, and deep social chasms” disrupting the performance of Indian engineering, I was reminded of the social and cultural barriers to innovation I wrote about in From Jugaad to Systematic Innovation. Like any other professional discipline, engineering needs to be rooted in the social milieu in which it is expected to demonstrate results. Our failure to include insightful humanities and social science courses in Indian engineering education is proving expensive indeed.

But what about our core engineering skills themselves? Worried by the frequent reports of unemployable engineers and poor engineering skills among the hundreds of thousands of Indian engineering graduates, former Indian Institute of Science professor and entrepreneur Swami Manohar started the Joy of Engineering, Design and Innovation (JEDI) competition a couple of years ago. The contest is based on final year projects done by engineering students as part of the engineering curriculum. Manohar believes that final year engineering projects represent a unique opportunity for students to demonstrate their real engineering skills. This year’s winner was Harshal Choudhari of IIT Madras for a “standing wheelchair” that allows a user to sit, stand or sleep. Sounds like a great invention, I only hope that at least some of the JEDI inventions get out of the lab and into the market. Swami reports that the JEDI entries are getting better, that’s good news for those of us who have despaired about the practicality of Indian engineering skills. I look forward to the day when Indian engineering students will be able to take up projects like the Darpa Grand Challenges!

An intriguing report in the press this week was about 85 of the top 100 rankers in IIT JEE 2012 joining IIT Bombay. While IIT Bombay has been on a distinctly upward trajectory in recent years, is this enough to explain it being such a doninant choice of IIT JEE toppers? An article in The Hindu investigated why even Chennai-based students preferred IIT Bombay. The report attributed this to “better industry exposure, advanced facilities and a liberal campus life.” While its certainly good to see quality factors rather than geography or language influencing student choices, its difficult to avoid thinking that in, an era of social networks and new and subtle ways of peer pressure, is this just the latest manifestation of a lack of individuality and independent thinking? If so, this doesn’t augur too well for the country.


  1. Rishi -- I remember several insightful humanities and social science courses at IIT Kanpur. Are those no longer offered/required for graduation? Or maybe you are talking about nation-wide engg. education?

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  2. When I did my engg, there were two courses on management and organization. But in an engg college set-up, those courses were never taken seriously by students. There is a need to educate students about the importance and applicability of these courses in their career.