The State of Engineering in India

Engineering-IndiaEven as the number of engineers in the US continues to shrink, India is churning out engineers by the hundreds of thousands. Much has already been said and written about the quality of engineering graduates in India. Much more qualified people than me have penned their frustration with the state of engineers in India. Nevertheless, as a Computer Science and Engineering student who is at the brink of graduating, I couldn’t help but jump into the discussion.

In 2008, India produced 3.5 lakh (350 thousand) engineers. However, raw numbers don’t tell the entire story. When it comes to number of engineers per million people, there are only 214 engineers in India, compared to 1435 in South Korea and 765 in Japan. Of course, this isn’t all that surprising, given that the percentage of secondary and higher secondary pass outs in India is also significantly lower than in other developed nations. The real worrying statistic is that even after one year of graduation, 30% of Engineers in India remain unemployed. According to the Wall Street Journal, 75% of technical graduates and more than 85% of general graduates are unemployable by India’s high-growth global industries. The situation is so dire that leading IT Services companies like Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys and Wipro have been forced to extend their initial training program for freshers in order to impart basic skills required on the job. And these are not companies that are not known for doing a lot of real engineering work. You can imagine how hard it must be for fledgling startups and software companies to attract real talent.

While opining on the state of engineering in India, most pundits have ripped apart the Indian education system. Right from the grassroots level, India’s education system ignores all the key facets of engineering, viz. curiosity, learning by experimentation, and problem solving. The explosion in the number of colleges handing out B. Tech degrees have resulted in a dire shortage of qualified teachers. The bar for becoming a teacher at the under graduate level has been lowered so much that it has become a folklore that students who don’t get recruited are the ones who end up becoming teachers.

However, the poor quality of education is not the sole reason for the current situation in India. The other driving factor is the attitude of the society. While, in the US, students are comfortable taking up courses like Humanities and Social Studies, Communications, and Media Arts, in India, most students believe (or are forced to believe) that the only two real career options before them are to become a doctor or an engineer. As a result, students who don’t have the will or the aptitude to become an engineer enroll for an engineering degree. This increase in demand has lead to the increase in the number of colleges, which in turn has lead to the lowering of the bar. It’s the lure of an offer from TCS and Infosys, rather than the attraction of building something that motivates engineering students in India. Even the criteria for getting into these colleges is misplaced. If you can mug up a few organic chemistry formulae, and have practised enough to solve some mechanics problem in Physics, chances are that you can get into a fairly esteemed institute of engineering.

Here are three completely random observations that I have made during my interaction with other Computer Science and Engineering students from several colleges across India:

  1. A staggering portion of the graduates aren’t even capable of accomplishing basic tasks like installing Windows or Linux operating system. Yes, many of the CSE graduates being produced by the Indian colleges are technically challenged.
  2. Most of the students in colleges around India, can’t even write simple algorithms like Bubble Sort or Binary Search, even if their life depended on it.
  3. Worse still, many of the lab instructors, who have been entrusted with the responsibility of teaching programming can’t write real code.

I am not suggesting that all engineers in India are clueless, or that all of the academicians are incompetent. However, a disappointingly large fraction is. Installing an Operating System has very little to do with Engineering. However, it does exemplify a lack of willingness or aptitude for even very rudimentary problem solving.

Undoubtedly, there is a lot that is wrong about the education system in India. However, it will also be wrong to ignore the positive impact that education has already had on India. Yes, quantity currently supersedes quality in India. However, most people will probably prefer the current situation over the situation ten or fifteen years back. Sridhar Vembu, the founder of ZOHO, very effectively pointed out the positive impact that even these substandard educational institutes are having on the society. In his own words,

The education for the most part was of poor quality, but that does not matter, because of what I have called the Placebo effect of education. What it confers is confidence, while the real knowledge is gained on the job – which is why dropping out of college doesn’t do much damage to upper-middle-class kids, who presumably already have an ample supply of confidence.

Most good things in India happen in spite of the government, and not because of it. When the quality of Engineering graduates picks up, it will also be because of a combination of factors that will have very little to do with the ministry of education. It might be because some premier institute decided to lead the way by encouraging hacker culture, instead of learning by rote. It might be because of the opening up of new lucrative career paths as the Indian economy grows and flourishes, which will reduce the (false) compulsion that most students feel to get into an engineering college, which in turn will lead to new batches of engineering students who will study engineering not because it will improve their chances of getting a job, but because they truly want to understand how stuff works and they want to build things. Among those will be several brilliant minds that will be able to dream big enough to change the world.

Image via OpenClipArt

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Pallab De

Pallab De is a blogger from India who has a soft spot for anything techie. He loves trying out new software and spends most of his day breaking and fixing his PC. Pallab loves participating in the social web; he has been active in technology forums since he was a teenager and is an active user of both twitter (@indyan) and facebook .