Sandeep Sancheti, Vice Chancellor of one of the largest private unaffiliated universities in the country, SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai, is emphatic when he says that engineering learning in the country needs to become more inter- and multi-disciplinary and its domains, which are in their own narrow verticals, needs to be flattened. “Engineering needs to open up. Today, it requires to teach or expose students to a lot of social science, community, environmental and legal aspects in addition to subjects from other engineering domains. Engineering has been quite unitary in its approach so far, which is not necessarily good. I believe that it is not fulsome and diverse enough in its approach,” he says in an interview to BusinessLine .

Sancheti says engineering disciplines in the future should be ‘branchless’ where even somebody with any engineering background but with the knowledge of required skills can be considered for a job. “Students should be able to pick their own subjects, collect all those flowers called credits, and make their own bouquet, and say, ‘Here is my degree, let the industry test me, check me, observe me and give me a job based on my expertise or deliverables.’ It doesn't matter if an engineer of a given discipline may not be the best in it but can be good in others. That is what is happening in the IT sector; most in the IT work force are from disciplines like electrical, mechanical or civil and they succeed in IT even when they possibly may not be as competent or interested in their own respective domains,” elaborates the Vice Chancellor.

Singular cannot survive

Widening his argument, Sancheti says that any singular discipline cannot survive by itself today. “What will survive in the coming world would be multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and trans-disciplinary. Fortunately, several major areas of studies accepted all these changes much earlier than in engineering. So that change, which was overdue, is happening now,” he says. He cites the example of Google CEO Sundar Pichai, a graduate of metallurgical engineering and post-graduate in materials sciences, who can best justify this trend.

The New Education Policy, allowing multiple entry and exits as well as its academic bank of credits, will be a boon for engineering, as it will help make everything more inter-disciplinary. Engineering needs to be more diverse, more acceptable, and more ‘well-performing’ with its research, development and innovation more in sync with societal and industrial needs, explains Sancheti.

SRMIST, which has around 30,000 students in the engineering stream, against a total student strength of 52,000 students, allows minor specialisations for its engineering students. For example, if a student is doing civil engineering, he/she can also study data sciences by taking up a few courses, says the VC. The university also has initiated twinning programmes with international universities. This allows the students to study with SRM for a part study and the remaining part abroad. “So we have created several models where a student takes admission with us and studies for certain years with us and then with any of the partner institutions we have across the world for the remaining period. The selection by the partner institution would generally be based on the student’s performance and interest. They may ultimately get the degree from them. What it means for aspirants of international degrees is that they have beaten the challenge of corona, they reduce the cost because they are getting educated for two years in India and they deepen their roots in the Indian culture system and they still get a foreign degree,” explains Sancheti.

High demand from IT

Asked if the other end of the pipe, the recruiters, accept the idea of inter-disciplinarity, the VC says that today the bulk of requirement for engineers is from the IT sector. And the sector is admittedly highly multi-disciplinary as even a five-year architecture degree student can apply and get a job in an IT firm, even though he or she may not have done much of programming, mathematics, statistics, computer architecture, database courses when compared to other engineering disciplines.

When it comes to bulk of placements, the IT sector is accepting a high level of inter-disciplinarity. However, as the VC explains, “When it is about high-end jobs in specialisations like Data Mining, Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Machine Learning, the emphasis is more on core skills and computer and electronics related branches. At the lower end, IT firms lay stronger emphasis on communication, logical and analytical abilities.” Referring to the re-training that large IT companies are doing, he says “An institution’s job is typically to create a ‘base’ structure by creating a graduate engineer with general abilities and attributes like learnability such that firms can construct their own ‘superstructure’ as per their specific requirements, on that base.”

Choose differently

The other advantage, from a practical point of view, in allowing openness and inter-disciplinarity is if a student, who is in his second or third year in an engineering course, realises that the job market is tightening in his/her chosen discipline, he or she can choose differently in the remaining years and take up subjects or specialisations which may offer more potential. “In India we have no idea of what type and number of manpower is required in what sector or which stream is going up or down; therefore students should be allowed to choose the courses which can provide a better potential or can be a safety zone for them,” says the VC. Students can even opt for an integrated technology and management programme if their own sector prospects looks dim and they want to switch tracks. “So the more you allow the students to mature and make their own choices, the better would be the chances of their success. Right now it is a blind race where one follows the common trends without matching and mapping their abilities with their goals or market requirements,” adds Dr Sancheti.

The future can be exciting for students, he says, but a lot will depend on how they make their decisions and chart out their careers. “Students will be responsible for their own deeds and needs. Teachers will teach everything possible that is essential to be taught, but students will have to take clear calls to understand what they want to learn, go beyond syllabus by self-learning and also decide on what they want to achieve with it,” says Dr Sancheti.