The world’s top 50 universities in engineering and technology in 2013 do not include any Indian university/college. The Higher Education World Reputation Ranking2013 of top 100 institutions, has representation from all the BRIC countries, except India. We can conveniently blame it on bias, or simply ignore the global ranking. While the Government-run institutions have their share of challenges, the private institutes/universities, perceived to be a ray of hope, appear to be less interested in improving quality.

Employability, a challenge

Now, let us juxtapose the lack of quality institutions with another dimension — un-employability. There are over 2,500 engineering colleges in the country, producing over 7 lakh graduates every year. Notwithstanding the unpredictability, the IT Industry has remained the largest job provider over the past 15-20 years, absorbing about 10-15 per cent of the graduates. Hiring by public sector and non-IT private companies, and students pursuing higher education constitute 25-30 per cent. But, that still leaves a significantly large pool of engineering graduates without a proper job. The Industry Readiness Index 2013 survey by PurpleLeap, a company that provides skill bridging support for students pursuing engineering courses, indicates that only 10 per cent of the engineers passing out of colleges from Tier 2/3 cities in the country are employable. Even with the intervention programmes, the students struggle, primarily due to poor communication and/or analytical/problem-solving skills. Even worse, another report states that 30 per cent of the engineers do not have basic quantitative skills required for day-to-day life and entry-level engineering jobs.

India lags way behind China in terms of university research in engineering and technology. China, for example, has three times more enrolment for master’s programmes in engineering and management. India produces 1,000 PhDs annually in technology and engineering, compared to 8,000-9,000 in the US and China. It has to be noted that US and China have large well-funded universities that encourage higher education. The 2011 Kakodkar report emphasises the need for rapid improvement in research infrastructure in India, including the IITs.

So, what needs to be done to improve the situation? It is evident that active involvement and collaboration between government, engineering colleges/universities and industry is vital for improving the quality of engineers.

To fill up the vacant seats in private engineering colleges, the cut-off score for students seeking admission is being considerably watered-down. Added to this, many private colleges lack the intellectual infrastructure — comprising libraries, broadband connectivity for accessing knowledge resources on the Internet and, most importantly, qualified and knowledgeable faculty. Strict regulatory mechanisms should be implemented to ensure that only institutions with proper infrastructure are allowed to function.

Strict regulations

Simple things like monitoring the output from internship/project work should be strengthened. Strict measures are need for removing the rampant “paid” project work culture that is in vogue. It is appalling to see students get away by outsourcing their work.

The next most important step is to provide a clear road-map for the students with an inclination for research to pursue their interest. This would help in retaining the research-seeking graduates from going abroad. The effectiveness of government-funded schemes to promote research among engineering students through the Modernisation and Removal of Obsolescence (MODROBS) and the Research Promotion Scheme (RPS) is still unclear.

We need an environment that fosters active partnerships between industry and colleges/universities. In the advanced countries, research work is given high priority among the engineering colleges/universities. The teachers can lead by example and inspire students to pursue research and innovation.

The duration of the engineering course can perhaps be increased by six months or a year. This can help accomodate a sandwich/apprentice programme, which can provide hands-on work experience. For example, today, students get selected for project work/in-plant training through personal contact.

A transparent platform for monitoring and evaluating apprentice programmes should be created by involving industry — including private and public sector, and the universities. The Government’s latest initiative towards skill improvement through the National Vocational Educational Qualification Framework (NVEQF) is certainly a good step. However, it may be worthwhile strengthening the existing well-funded National Skill Development Corporation, than creating new initiatives.

Look beyond IT

Although Nasscom predicts significant requirements in the IT industry over the next decade, it is vital that the Government looks at supporting altervative sectors and creating an efficient platform to manage the demand and supply of engineering graduates.

Reports indicate that manufacturing sector would grow significantly by 2025, fuelled primarily by the emerging economies. This could be an opportunity for India to take on China and emerge as a dominant player in, say, energy or semiconductor sector.

Why can’t government policies and best practices that helped in rapid growth of the IT industry be replicated in strengthening other sectors? AICTE/universities should upgrade the syllabus to be attuned with industry needs, especially in some of the core areas such as electrical and mechanical engineering.

It is, thus, imperative for the engineering education to grow beyond IT industry. A strong push is needed for strengthening industry-academia interaction in all the major sectors/streams. This would certainly spur innovation/research and help in improving employability among our next-gen engineers!

(The author is Vice-President, Symphony Teleca. The views are personal.)