Technical education is right train on the wrong track

8 Dec, 2016
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An authored article of Vikrant Pande (Provost, TeamLease Skills University) in DNA talks about how the teaching methodology in technical education is based on a faulty assumption.

A recent article talking of nearly 2 lakh engineers applying for 368 peon posts in UP state is a clear example of engineering colleges being on the wrong track. Since the IT revolution of the '90s, engineering colleges were sitting pretty, getting 100 per cent placements and generally not bothered about what they taught. Today many of them are closing down due to the inability to place students. The less than industry-relevant curriculum is the effect, not the cause, of what ails colleges.

Teaching methodology is based on the faulty assumption that engineering is an academic discipline like chemistry or physics. In fact, engineering is applied science and is a profession, akin to medicine, law or chartered accountancy. The distinction between a profession and an academic discipline is crucial. When the Industrial Training Institutes (ITI) were formed, in the '50s, the objective was to create a 'trade' school which conducted practicals more than theory. That was a useful, but hardly a comprehensive and professional education. The engineering colleges were supposed to fulfil the gap of offering 'theoretical' inputs. No curricular reforms will work until we start considering engineering as applied science. Today, the pedagogy in engineering colleges is only about teaching dozens of subjects with little or almost nil effort on practical exposure. Going back to the trade school paradigm would be a disaster. It is thus imperative to strike a new balance between pure theory and practical relevance.

Creating an entirely new set of universities like a skills universities offer many solutions to the problem. How is a skills university different from others? The basic DNA is about praying to the one god of employer. The curriculum is set by industry and not academicians. In engineering colleges we find that professors have no exposure to industry and they are far detached from real life applications of engineering. A skills university balances theory and practise. Theory in itself is not bad but focus on theory alone is disastrous. Law schools expect faculty members to be first-rate scholars; in fact, articles published in law reviews are often cited in trials. But these institutions also value professors' ability to teach. Similarly, medical schools carry on advanced biological research, but most members of the teaching faculty are also practicing doctors. Our engineering colleges are full of professors with PhDs in their subjects. The regulator too mandates this without demanding for any industry experience.

The impact of this loss is clearly on employability of the graduates. Employers are frustrated that fresh engineering graduates lack practical exposure but have a vast and, most often, irrelevant theoretical knowledge. College professors have never seen the inside of a factory in their life!

The government needs to revamp distance education and allow local universities to offer massive open online courses. The regulator is stuck in a mindset that uses land, buildings and hardware as a proxy for intent. Hardware demonstrates the ability to spend money but is weakly correlated to quality or outcomes.

In India, we have to solve the impossible problem of getting things at the lowest cost, biggest scale and best quality. Getting two of three right in one institution is easy but government policy should encourage biodiversity; a number of genetically diverse but statistically independent tries that innovate in delivery models. IITs and IIMs have their place but they are a child of West with focus on quality for countries with small populations that grew rich before they grew old. We need an urgent solution to solve the problem of a million unemployed youth joining the market each month.

Let a hundred skills universities bloom.


This article was published in DNA:

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