Where are the engineers?

Only a 1/3rd of IIT students go on to pursue technology is symptomatic of the deep crisis in engineering education today.

We hear daily conflicts between students’ freedom of expression and university norms and discipline.

The issues concerning greater inclusivity for long-marginalised groups and of freedom of speech on campus are important but most university administrators have found effective ways to resolve these problems through models such as affirmative action and diversity policies, gender and ethnic sensitivity training, modular learning programmes, remedial education and so on. Indian universities could adapt these to the local context. Periodic workshops and meetings of senior academic administrators could also help.

A broken engineering education — The bigger and perhaps far more serious predicament is that engineering education is completely broken. Ironically, this is because of the very success of the IITs and engineering colleges. One problem is that economic and public policy interpretations of the problem are inadequate to characterise it fully. Well-worn neo-Benthamite frameworks of interpretation, a resource efficiency study, for instance, might reveal poor teachers or infrastructure but would miss fundamental insights from fields like culture studies and sociology.

Calling something a societal problem means that more is at stake than just an aggregate of individual ‘interests’ or ‘utilities’. Social scientists recognise that broad patterns of human interaction tend to coalesce into structured routines and maybe even have rules of their own, but that these are always situated in broader historically and spatially defined contexts. In engineering education, we see this in the mad rush for seats in the milieu of rising aspirations cutting across caste and class.

The race for a career in the past two decades, young men have been drawn in large numbers towards elite engineering colleges but they cannot simply be understood as autonomous souls drawn towards engineering as an academic discipline. Rather, there is a large set of other social influences pushing them — parents, peers and teachers but also the image of IIT graduates as smart, young, well-dressed professionals in high-paying careers. Most important, this rush has taken place in the context of great churning and economic opportunity, even as more than 95% of the population struggles to find true forms of mobility. For example, IITs have been the passport to a good life and then a good job and then true calling of what one what to do.

For tens of thousands of IIT alumni, similar success stories are evident. But let us look at what happens to the entrants to the system. There can be three broad sets of attitudes that students develop in IITs. First, there are those who are motivated by the prospect of the passport, largely having come from modest economic and social backgrounds. Earlier they used to have an eye on postgraduate education, primarily abroad, with the hope of securing corporate or academic positions. Today, with the global corporate market demanding IIT talent, students often skip further education. Indeed, the proportion of undergraduates from IITs doing their PhDs has diminished dramatically in recent decades.

The second group is characterised by a deep despondency of some sort, even with outstanding job prospects. Many turn towards non-engineering vocations, ranging from the arts to politics and entrepreneurship, as Chetan Bhagat, Arvind Kejriwal and Mansur Khan have famously done.

It is the third group that is the real motivation for the IITs. This group has a direct interest in solving challenges of technology. They could be experimenters or entrepreneurs but are mostly trying to engage with the material sense in which the transformation of human society is an undertaking in itself. Examples here range from Vinod Khosla and Subra Suresh to numerous other technology leaders across the world.

In all groups, however, students seem to experience many forms of alienation that could spiral into crises where one is forced to take a position unexpectedly. To the extent that IITs are also prone, like every other institution today in India, to asking socially relevant questions around gender, caste, and elite privilege and corruption, politics is always already in its midst. If it has been muted, it was only because of a self-fashioning by its members that the discourse could be ‘apolitical’, itself a doomed venture.

Many engineering students are routinely solicited for advice, to find options to exit their pre-organised trajectories. Most students are like unwilling recruits in the army, forced to do time, but seeking space to explore other interests.

What’s the solution?The fact that only a third of graduating IIT students fulfil the original vision of IITs to create ‘temples’ or true workshops of technology should give us pause. What does it mean that most of the engineering students today do not seek to work on real-world engineering problems?

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Design Researcher; Initiator of HCI4SouthAsia; Ex-chair of Srishti SIGCHI Chapter; Startup Community Enabler

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Pranjal Jain

Pranjal Jain

Design Researcher; Initiator of HCI4SouthAsia; Ex-chair of Srishti SIGCHI Chapter; Startup Community Enabler

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