Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Promoting quality in engineering education:

The institutions for undergraduate engineering education in the country registered outstanding growth, in terms of number, in the past few years. The statistics show that the number of students who joined engineering courses increased from 2.1 lakh in the year 2000-01 to 5.1 lakh in the year 2005-06, an almost 2.5 fold increase. The FICCI report on manpower predicts a shortfall of 5 lakh engineers by the year 2012, which means there is still scope for further growth.

The higher education is back in focus again, with the prime minister announcing plans to create 30 top-class universities, one in each of the 18 states that do not at present have a central university. The government aims to increase the enrolment rate from the estimated 10 per cent of the population by the end of the Tenth Plan (2007) to 15 per cent by the end of the Eleventh Plan (2011/12). This will still be way behind the world average of 23 per cent enrolment. We have, of course, come a long way from the 1950s, when the enrolment rate in higher education was a mere 0.7 per cent. It would be an extremely difficult level to reach the current world average of 23 per cent unless there is a more widespread preference among ordinary people for higher education. If the government is serious about achieving the PM's ambitious plans to create 30 top-class universities, it would have to spend a huge sum. So far the government has not come out with details about how it proposes to finance such an expansion, but it is very likely that we shall see a further increase in the education cess. There is a good case for more private investment in the education. It is time the corporate giants enter into education and build institutions of excellence. Moreover there is going to be a huge demand for highly trained teachers. The University Grants Commission will have to consider this aspect. A concrete policy will have to be put in place to attract talented individuals in the teaching profession. One of the media for change would be to create incentives for Indian students that often leave India to pursue graduate studies in the US, Canada, UK for example, to return to India upon completion of their PhD's and seek professorships with Indian institutions. The present salary structure and the lack of funding for research are the biggest de-motivating factors.

The University Grants Commission (UGC) has correctly identified two areas of concern: infrastructure and quality of faculty. The UGC currently supports 6,000 colleges out of 14,000 that are eligible to receive grants and 167 varsities out of the 378 existing in the country. This would mean that the quality of education and infrastructure in the rest of the colleges and varsities would have to be upgraded to meet UGC norms of quality assessment and control so that they qualify for grants. The UGC certainly has a big job on its hands, if it has to ensure the upgradation of existing infrastructure as well as the increased enrolment to meet the Eleventh Plan targets.

The number of students opting for the postgraduate (M. E./ M. Tech., Ph. D.) courses in engineering has hardly shown any growth. Only about 5% of the engineering graduates continue to complete M. Tech. and of those only 3% pursue Ph. D. studies. The number of engineering colleges conducting postgraduate courses is few. It is felt that whilst the undergraduate engineering syllabi should be oriented towards fulfilling the requirement of the industry, those for postgraduate courses should aim to train students to become good teachers and researchers. The policy makers are worried about the trend. The problem will not be solved by blaming the private managements alone. An overall view is required, which includes university policies.

In the first place, let us examine where India stands in comparison to its nearest competitor, the other Asian tiger, China. According to the UNESCO's Science Report 2005, China's global share of the gross expenditure on R&D doubled from 4% to 9%, between 1997 and 2002, as against that of India's 2.5% in 2000. India contributes only 2.1% of the total number of scientific researchers and a paltry 1.9% of the scientific publications globally, as against China's contribution of 14.7% and 4.1% in the respective fields. The statistics reveal a lack of effort towards the indigenous scientific development. While India has institutions of excellence such as the IISc, IITs and IIMs, the performance of the average Indian university in turning out students of quality leaves a lot to be desired. The universities in India lag in research, barring some exceptions. It is difficult to imagine India as a developed country without the well developed higher education system.

Our search for the cause should begin from the structure and the content of the engineering courses and the functioning of various fora which decide on the academic policies of the University. Although these aspects are governed by the University Act enacted by the respective state governments, there are certain common features. The Boards of Study (BOS), update the syllabi periodically. An ideal engineering syllabus should be dynamic, i.e. it should get continuously updated to take into account the changing requirement of the industry. The university syllabi are revised every five years and in most cases these revisions are only marginal. There is almost a total lack of industry participation in the syllabi revision. That is because the spheres of working of the academic institutions and the industry are practically isolated from each other, unlike some developed countries where most of the industrial developments are a result of the research carried out in the academic institutions. The industry participation in the academic development in those countries is primarily due to this inter-dependence. All the university fora like the boards of study, faculty, academic and management councils and others draw members through the process of election, which is a good democratic practice. Presently the criteria qualifying the individual for contesting these elections is mainly the number of years teaching experience. There is a need to have some additional criteria based on the academic achievements, as required for the nature of the work the member will be called upon to perform in these fora.

The principal aim of all PG programmes, namely postgraduate and doctoral studies is to train the student to carry out teaching and independent research. The research means achieving excellence in the field of study. The quality in engineering education is synonymous to the quality in teaching and research by the faculty and the students. The goal can be fulfilled only when there is total commitment of the management of the private institution towards research. Conducting research is quite different from running undergraduate programmes. The teachers will have to be engaged in sustained research, besides conducting the routine theory and practical classes. The institution may have to recruit highly qualified and experienced faculty, at senior levels, for the purpose. Thus the present, AICTE fixed, minimum students-to-teacher ratio of 15:1 may have to be improved.

One of the reasons why institutions like IITs and IISc are successful carrying out sustained research activity is the kind academic culture cultivated over a period of time. In these institutions, it is quite normal to see faculty working in the Department 18-20 hours a day. The quality of the faculty will have to be ensured at the time of selection. When a right individual selected is put in the right place, half of the job is done and the remaining is ensured.

The faculty should be encouraged to constantly interact with the industry. The teaching hours may have to be suitably adjusted, based on the nature of interaction. Whilst it is true that the success in research in engineering should be judged by its application in the industry, the requirement of industry needs to be shaped into appropriate academic research projects. Besides, the delivery of results will have to be done in a time-bound manner, as always required by the industry. The industry should get involved in the engineering education, in their own interest. Good quality engineers shall contribute to the growth of the industry. To illustrate, let us take the example of IT industry. A giant in the IT industry in India today employs engineers to the tune of 50,000. It is also true that substantial amount is spent on the research. However it does not get reflected in the number of patents or even the products developed by these companies. Compare it with the performance of Intel, employing just around 4000 engineers.

The investment on infrastructure, laboratory equipment and setups will also be required at the college level. At present, the main agency providing financial support to research projects is the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), New Delhi. The allotment of funds and continuous monitoring of the progress of the research projects will be done in a better manner, if the funds are made available through the University. The main source of funding for the privately managed institutions is the tuition fees collected from the students. The infrastructure development requires huge investments, for which the educational institutions may be provided with soft loans. Like the industry, the idea of setting up Educational Development Bank may be considered. Substantial funds can also result from sustained testing, training and consultancy activity.

The fact remains that over 1,20,000 students leave India to study overseas every year and a majority of them are engineering students. This leads to an annual outflow of $ 4 billion. Improving the quality and standards of higher education will encourage more students to explore options of higher learning within the country, and that, ultimately, should be the final aim of the government.