The Story of Engineering Education in India

During the last 2 years of Jnaapti’s functioning, we have faced a lot of criticism from many of the stake-holders in this field. And we are not surprised.

This is an account of why this is so, and why Jnaapti functions the way it functions.

My intention of writing this post is to only help parents and students make an informed decision about their careers and make better choices for themselves.

People have criticized us and will continue to criticize us because they have a certain mindset when looking at the success of the IT industry over the last decade.

We have been approached by many parents when their sons/daughters are in the final year of Engineering hoping that we can get their children a job. They say, “My son just finished his Engineering and is now looking for a job. I believe that you can get him one?”. And it hurts us that we can’t help most of them because of the sheer lack of quality. In a lot of ways we feel that these people have been duped. If someone had done this outside the context of an Engineering degree, such institutions would have been forced to close and the people behind this would have been taken to the courts.

Table of Contents

How creativity changes over time

Let’s look at a typical scenario (our research shows us similar results):
Little Johny is a very creative kid. He is in 5th standard now. And he has several interests. He seems interested in nearly anything he does. He goes to several classes – music, sports, computers, what not. You ask Johny, “Johny, what do you want to be when you grow up?”. And he is not hesitant, he has all sorts of interests – “I want to be a pilot”, “I want to be a truck-driver?” Ask him, “Why so?” and he has reasons too. Although his reasons may not seem logical, he is not influenced by anyone in his decision making.

So you were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that. Is that right? Don’t do music, you’re not going to be a musician; don’t do art, you’re not going to be an artist. Benign advice — now, profoundly mistaken. – Sir Ken Robinson

A few years pass, and Johny is now in 8th standard. He seems more “mature” now. And he is slowly being more “realistic” about what he should be doing growing up. Ask him the same question now, and his answers have “stabilized”. You expect him to say, “I want to be a doctor/engineer/accountant/lawyer”. Ask him “Why” and he typically gives you an answer, “Because I am more interested in Biology than Maths” or “Because my uncle says I will do well in this field”.

What happened to Johny’s creativity?

We did some research about when people lose their creativity. And we found that the worst phase is between 10th standard to 12th standard (or 2nd year PU) where there is more “stabilization” in their thought process and there are major life decisions taken. Johny, not being interested in science in the first place didn’t do well and got a 50000+ rank in the entrance test. He was forced to join a Tier-3 engineering college with loads of donation. Johny hates it, but he knows he has a very bright future (or atleast he thinks he does).

I hope the sarcasm in the above is clear. What influenced Little Johny’s thought process? Why are parents ready to pay such huge amounts to get their kids into Engineering in the first place?

Unfortunately, most of the times, this is a very illogical decision.

Role of parents in decision making

Parents play an important role in the decision making of their kids. We have asked this question to engineering students, “What prompted you to join this college (knowing that the placement statistics are bleak and the future of the students is not that great)?” and their answers are, “My parents/uncles/siblings advised/forced me to”. Sometimes it could be because of economical reasons.

The choice of the college or the degree is more social/cultural than logical. Johny is influenced by his parents’ (or someone else that he cares about) thought process that people in the IT sector make tons of money and have a bright future. It’s just a matter of getting Johny into one of these companies and he is set for life and he will soon recover all the money invested. The current statistics support this fact.

Most parents, however, don’t understand that the quality of a graduate from a Tier-3 engineering college does not match the quality of a graduate from a Tier-1 college. They think that an engineer is an engineer no matter where he graduates from.

And most of the times where do parents get their inputs from? This may surprise you, but most of the times their decision making is illogical. Parents ask someone (which could as well be a random stranger in the street), “Is CS/EC/Mechatronics in scope?” and the stranger’s words are as good as God’s words.

What is this “in scope” or “out of scope”???
In plain English, ‘x’ being in scope means their son/daughter will not have a difficulty finding a job after graduating in ‘x’.

How is the degree chosen?

“There is a growing misconception that if you can send an email or find something on the Web that you somehow know a lot about computing,” says White. “No, you’re increasingly IT literate, but you know nothing about the fundamentals of how this stuff works.” – ACM CEO John White

Parents believe that their son/daughter should get into Computer Science because he/she is always spending time on computers, browsing or visiting social networks. That’s like saying, “I want my son to be an automobile engineer because he loves to drive sports cars.”

The job market and the seat intake

What happens to the graduates of Tier-3 engineering colleges?

Most Tier-3 colleges rely on service companies for their job intake. The issues with the jobs here is most service companies don’t need high quality graduates. Most of the times, they don’t need engineers but mere “coders”.

What is the issue with that? How does it really matter?

The issue with this is, these jobs are easily transferable.

A lot of engineering colleges are not able to place a majority of the students (we have been approached by many such colleges). The college management is afraid that not being able to place the students has an immediate effect on their seat intake the next year. Many seats will remain vacant and in worst cases, colleges face a situation where they may have to close a branch due to vacant seats.

Misuse of problem – emergence of certification courses and job oriented training

Suddenly degrees aren’t worth anything. Isn’t that true? When I was a student, if you had a degree, you had a job. But now kids with degrees are often heading home to carry on playing video games, because you need an MA where the previous job required a BA, and now you need a PhD for the other. It’s a process of academic inflation. And it indicates the whole structure of education is shifting beneath our feet. We need to radically rethink our view of intelligence. – Sir Ken Robinson

What if Johny doesn’t get a job while in college?

This is not a new problem. Johny now looks to increase his chances to get a job via certifications. He (and his parents) are ready to pay tons of money to companies (usually in the range of 20k to 1 lakh or more) to get a job. He is also ready to pay a company money if they can give him a job (surprised?). And if he is unethical, he is also ready to pay money in exchange for a fake job experience certificate.

This is a widely prevelant practice and we have been approached by several graduates who ask if our training will give them a certification in the end. We say that we don’t and they don’t want to enroll. The reason they look for training is to get a certification and not to increase their knowledge and build their skillset.

I am sorry to say this, but parents come with an “old generation” mindset – they are ready to pay money to get their son a job. Why? Because they think that if he gets a job he has settled in life. Unfortunately, what they don’t realize is that there is no such thing as “settling” in IT jobs. There is no job security – because a company can lay off its employees anytime. And if they do lay off Johny, is his skillset/experience of any use to get a job again?

I ask a simple question – if a graduate degree is not a good metric of your skillset, and you need a certification to get a job, then what is the value of the degree in the first place?

Misuse of problem – Sale of ready made projects

There is another very prevelant practice in the industry now and that is of selling student projects at a price. I didn’t know the seriousness of this problem until I founded Jnaapti.

I was once approached by a group of final year students asking me if I can help them out with their final year project. I said I can. They met me and started describing the project. They said they have a ready-made project with them, but it needs to be modified in some way. They asked me how much I charge. They were ok to pay me the money and they asked me, “When can we collect the modified project?”. I was shocked to my core! I said, “I am not doing this modification for you. You need to do it yourself. I am only guiding you.” They said, “If we are doing the modification ourselves, then why should we pay you for this?!”

Students hiring a software consultant to get their job done? Yeah, you heard it right! The students believed that no student has the ability to do a final year project on their own.

I once spoke to the principal of a college. He had asked me to call at a certain time but he took unusually long to respond. He kept delaying and told me to call half an hour later. When I finally reached him (about a couple of hours later) he apologized and told me that the reason he couldn’t receive my call was that a few parents had come and were complaining that the college expects tuition fees and then expects students to work on projects (they thought that the college is getting work done by the students).

Finally, another incident: A student was getting trained with me and I had a very challenging project for him as his final year project. When he proposed this project to his guide, his guide rejected it saying that it’s too simple. He then asked my student to approach an institute for good projects. Turns out, the guide was getting a cut from the institute!

Believe me, all these are real encounters!

Don’t train our faculty

When I was in IBM, I was involved in University Relations. As part of this initiative, we used to visit colleges and conduct workshops and internship programs. We also had curriculum development programs, faculty development programs etc.

When we proposed the curriculum development programs to a college, the principal told us not to push IBM software into the college. He said he has the ability to pay money and buy software. I guess there is some truth to the story – organizations are involved in UR with the interest of promoting their brand in the college. This is one of the reasons why engineering students are well trained in proprietary software and have no clue that there is free software with the same or better quality. (The discussion on free v/s proprietary software in colleges is a separate topic!)

This is perhaps a smaller problem. Here are 2 incidents which were a little more serious:

When we proposed faculty development programs, we were told that the college doesn’t want us to train their faculty and make them better. (Read that twice!)

The college is afraid that if the faculty is trained and has the ability to get a job in an IT shop, they are going to quit, and this will impact the college negatively. They already have faculty shortage. In other words, the college was openly telling us, “It is in our best interest to leave our faculty dumb”.

We tried to convince the management that they can have some agreement with the faculty. The management told us they have tried it, but the faculty members don’t mind paying a huge sum of money to leave their job.

This situation is not unique. Here is story from another institute (let’s call them Institute X) that conducts similar programs in colleges.

Institute X conducts programs in colleges to train the students for campus interviews. They get good quality software engineers who are also passionate about teaching to go and conduct technical sessions in the college. For a lot of the students, such sessions are an eye-opener. They are not used to being taught well. In one such session on C/C++, a few of the faculty members happened to attend the session.The students passed comments that the faculty members know nothing and only now are they really learning C++! This was enough for the faculty to go and complain to the management that the institute must not be allowed to conduct training in the college or else the studens will lose respect of the faulty.

Needless to say, the institute didn’t get the training contract because they were good.

Role of the Government

Is it that the Government doesn’t understand this situation? Is it that I am complaining about a problem that doesn’t exist? How come there is an increase in the number of Engineering colleges every year when the current graduates are not getting placed?

The reason is, the Government is looking at a different problem – how can we double the graduate output by the end of this decade? The reason they want to do this is, it is anticipated (based on predictions) that there is going to be a requirement for almost twice as many graduates by 2020. This is a welcome prediction. In fact, almost every good product company in India has need for more human capital than what they currently have. A lot of ideas are waiting to be implemented but cannot be, because of lack of supply of good quality engineers.

However what the Government is doing is aiming at quantity at the cost of quality.

Mismatch of skills

Findings of the NASSCOM-McKinsey Report 2005 indicate that, while more than three million students graduate from Indian colleges and the nation produces 500,000 engineers annually, only a very small percentage are directly employable by the industry. Only around 25 per cent of technical graduates and 10-15 per cent of general graduates are estimated to be suitable for employment in the offshore IT and Business Process Outsourcing industries. NASSCOM Newsline spoke to industry players to get a first-hand sense of the issue and the steps being taken to address it. – NASSCOM Blog Post

Wait, something doesn’t seem right here. Are we saying that there is an increase in demand for graduates every year? Then why is it that we are having an increase in so many unemployed undergraduates?

The problem is, the Engineering colleges are producing graduates which the industry doesn’t need. So, while many of them are working with lesser capacity than what they actually need (high-skilled labor) many other service companies are absorbing these graduates and investing heavily in (re)training the graduates in jobs they can put them on. But it turns out that the skills that these employees have is not transferable from one company to another. But that doesn’t matter – the next company can invest in training as well. These skills are not something that needs an engineering degree (which is why you shouldn’t be surprised if you see a Diploma holder and an Engineer doing similar jobs).

Why does a company need to (re)train an undergraduate on languages/technologies like Java/J2EE etc when he is expected to know these skills as part of his engineering curriculum? The answer is simple: while students claim to have these skills they in fact don’t.

Further, this shouldn’t come as a surprise as well – with the evolution of MOOCs we are seeing that many young people, even 12 year old kids can rival the skills of an Engineering graduate.

How is it that a 12-year old kid who has learnt programming skills via the Internet different from an Engineering graduate? To be frank, there is not much of a difference in the way Engineering is taught to students in India. Engineering colleges don’t concentrate on concepts but instead teach their students specific technologies with no conceptual foundation.

Experience increases over time (or does it)?

Let’s look at the taxi service industry as an analogy. Imagine a new cab-driver who is 18 years old, who has just entered the market. He is nearly as competent as a cab-driver with 10 years of experience for the most parts. As a user of cab services you don’t care about the number of years of experience of the cab-driver. Both earn similar money – and the pay doesn’t depend on your “years of experience”. It’s easy to replace a cab-driver with 10 years experience with someone who is new.

Most jobs in the IT industry in India face a similar situation.

In fact, there is one more trend that is kind of unique to this field. Imagine that there are 2 people, one, a person with 2 years of experience and another with 15 years of experience both in the same field. Are the skills of the 2 years experienced person a whole lot different from a person who has 15 years of experience? Now, let’s say both of them lose their jobs. Who do you think will get a job easily – the one with 2 years of experience or the one with 15? If both have similar profiles, since the person with 2 years experience commands lesser salary, he will perhaps get the job more easily than this other person. It is this reason that a person with 15+ years of experience is ready to work at jobs that command the same salary as what an engineer with 2-3 years experience gets.

Many of these jobs can easily be soaked into a cheaper market (eg: South East Asian countries). All you need is little intelligence, but a lot of persistence. Has anyone imagined what the fate of the country is, if we increasingly rely on these companies for our job intake?

Please note that I am not blaming these companies. They do provide employment to a vast majority of the people and that is good. But, in this market where the rate of change of technology itself is growing exponentially, what is the fate of increasing reliance on these companies? What if these companies face the same fate as what the yester-year mobile leaders are facing today? If a 100 year old company can become irrelevant in less than 5 years, can we expect the current IT companies to be stable over the next few decades? What is the fate of the employees in these companies if they lose their jobs and there is a massive layoff and a recession in the industry?

Man v/s Machine

Raj Koothrappali: Do you know what he did? He watched me work for 10 minutes, and then started to design a simple piece of software that could replace me.

Leonard Hofstadter: Is that even possible?

Raj Koothrappali: As it turns out, yes.
Big Bang Theory

There is another thing that is happening now – we are seeing a trend of automation – many of the things that we do now may be done by machines in future.

We are going to see an ever increasing integration of man and machine. Machines have a big advantage over humans – they can perform mundane jobs with high efficiency, once taught something their skills are transferable from one machine to another, they don’t complain and they can work throughout the day. But they do have a major disadvantage; they can’t “think”. So if you are doing a job that resembles the former – perhaps you are at a threat of losing your job easily.

We are already seeing this as we speak – it is easier to build and launch an application today than it used to be 20 years back. We see startups with 1-5 people managing thousands or millions of users where earlier we needed large teams atleast 5-10 times this size.

It took about 25 years for Personal Computers to become widely adopted and then stagnate. Can we expect the smart-phone era to be another 25 years? No, we can expect it to stagnate within 10 years. The next trend will perhaps not even last 10 years. What that means is, we can expect a new technology that we don’t even have now to get outdated before our lifetime. This situation is very unique and has perhaps never happened before in history.

Read Ray Kurzweil and you will either have sleepless nights because of the exciting future or because of the fear of being replaced by a machine! The choice is yours to make.

The impending doom

I am no economist or statistician so take this with a grain of salt.

There is a possibility that the fate of these employees is going to be similar to what happened to the Diploma holders who had a high paying job to fix the Y2K problem in the late 90s. There was an exponential increase in demand as 2000 approached and this resulted in people being paid huge salaries. A lot of training institutes granted Diplomas to students and also promised them a job at the end of the training (see a correlation?). However, once the problem was fixed there was no longer a need for this skillset and the people were laid off.

Life-long learning as a solution

So the question really is what should Little Johny do? How can he ensure that he has a bright future in this world of technological uncertainty? Is there a silver lining?

While hunting for answers to these questions, we observed highly paid software consultants and what is unique about them. These consultants are in high demand, earn above market pays, are not affected by recession and usually have more work than they can handle.

The one quality that distinguishes these from the rest is that they are quick learners and their skills are very adaptable. Every project puts new demands on their skillset but they usually don’t have trouble adapting.

A skilled person is not worried about getting a job, the job comes to him. He often has multiple jobs to choose from.

Let’s understand this: careers and roles will change more often in the future than it is currently. In the past we had engineers, then we had software engineers, and now we hear roles like Android expert, Javascript expert etc. Roles are getting more and more specific. And, this should be seen as an opportunity rather than as a threat. We just need a different mindset.

Find people with transferable skills – you need team players who can pitch in and try their hand at all sorts of different jobs. While specialists are sometimes necessary, versatility should not be underestimated. – Richard Branson’s suggestion on hiring

Our suggestions are simple:

1. Invest in life-long learning. Learn to learn and learn to learn fast. Your current skillset is not sufficient to sustain yourself into the future and you need a continuous upgrade of your skillset. This is easier than it sounds you just need to work hard – there is no replacement for hard-work.
2. Don’t build your personal brand around a specific technology, build your brand as someone who can acquire new skills as skill requirements change. In other words, don’t call yourself an Android guru or a Javascript Ninja but be a solid “engineer”.
3. Be aware of this problem and make a constant effort to nurture your creativity as you grow up. Parents play a very important role here.
4. Look for mentors who can guide you during your engineering.
5. Get involved in open-source projects. Internship or even hobby projects will do!

Worried about job security?

The only job security is your ability to get a job easily when you lose your current one. Learning multiple skills in not optional anymore and is perhaps the only way to ensure job security!

Role of parents in the decision making process (revisited)

We are not saying that parents should not be part of the decision making process. In fact this is highly encouraged. All we are saying is be more logical about your decisions.

As parents, we advise you to do your homework. Ask the alumni about the quality of the faculty and the quality of the placements. Don’t ask the college management or just plainly believe ads or reports. Check the alumni network – we have found that the stronger and more diverse the alumni network the better the college.

You don’t enroll your son/daughter in a branch because it is in scope. A branch can be in scope or out of scope as easily over the next few decades.

Get an expert in the field to walk your son/daughter through what it means to be working in that field and make sure your son/daughter knows what he/she is getting into.

Ask your kids what their interests are and research on careers in these fields. In this day and age, you will find umpteen number of careers and there is perhaps something better suited for your loved one.

Need for Educational Entrepreneurship

The need of the hour is educational entrepreneurship. As an entrepreneur in general, and as an educational entrepreneur in particular, I believe that there is a massive business opportunity here not by exploiting the situation but by solving it. The challenges in this space are not just technical in nature, but it also has flavors of social/political/cultural problems which makes it even more challenging and the more challenging it is, the more creative you need to be. This can be an entrepreneur’s dream canvas to draw his ideas on.

We want entrepreneurs to bring in radical thoughts and ambitious ideas to help fix the problem. We need to think beyond online learning and MOOCs and really see what it takes to instill interest in the masses, and help in connecting the right people with their dream jobs. We need to see what can make education fun and engaging.

In conclusion

I have an interest in education — actually, what I find is, everybody has an interest in education; don’t you?”. – Sir Ken Robinson

Update: Sep 24, 2013: This post was intended to be taken with optimism than pessimism. However I have seen that the post is generating more negative sentiments than positive ones! Everybody is entitled to their opinion and constructive criticism of this post is most welcome. However we request you to also provide solutions where applicable.
This is a work in progress and the post may change over time
This post first appeared in the Jnaapti blog on Sep 22nd, 2013