Technical courses revamp focuses on practical learning

Alarmed at the high rate of unemployment among India’s engineering graduates and the gap between their skills and the demands of employers, crucial changes in the curriculum for engineering and technical courses have been announced to make them less theoretical and bring them more in tune with industry’s requirements. The changes will be implemented in the current academic year 2017-18.

The All India Council for Technical Education, or AICTE, the statutory national-level body for technical education, last week announced a sweeping update for technical and engineering courses across the country with more emphasis on practical knowledge and laboratory work. The number of credits required for theoretical study has been reduced to 160 from 220.

According to AICTE figures, of the over 750,000 engineers India produces every year from 3,000 or more registered institutes, more than half do not find employment. Only 334,000 engineering graduates got jobs in 2015-16 out of about 758,000.

Industry has often voiced concerns that the majority of new graduates from technical and engineering institutes do not possess adequate skills and have to be trained on the job. Others say the skills issue can be overstated as employment has been squeezed by India’s tech companies reducing recruitment of certain types of graduate as they try to adapt to newer technologies.

The executive search firm Head Hunters India has said job cuts in India’s IT sector, which hires large numbers of engineering graduates, could be around 200,000 annually for the next three years due to technological change.

Engineering is a popular subject choice, with Indian parents often pushing their offspring towards the field. Many Indian engineering graduates head top companies overseas. But there is also concern about reports that the United States Department of Homeland Security is said to be considering new regulations that would scrap extensions to H-1B visas – the main route for India’s engineers to work in the US.

India accounts for more than half the 85,000 US H-1B visas issued annually, but if existing H-1B visas are not extended, more than 500,000 Indian technology workers may have to return home, according to some calculations.

This would have serious knock-on effects for those about to graduate from engineering institutes, unless quality can be improved.

Industry concerns

While launching the new curriculum on 24 January, India’s Human Resource Development Minister, Prakash Javadekar, said the syllabus should be updated every year keeping in mind the requirements of industry.

The minister said the country had witnessed rapid growth in technical education in the last few years but now the focus needed to be on quality. "Quality education is the only way to progress,” the minister said, adding that the government was committed to providing the best teachers, infrastructure and scholarships to all students.

Only about one-sixth of engineering programmes offered by technical institutions are currently accredited by the AICTE-established National Board of Accreditation, which was set up to ensure quality and relevance of technical courses. It periodically evaluates technical institutions and programmes.

AICTE Chairman Anil Sahasrabudhe said last week students will now be required to intern with industry as well as in the social sector, including on corporate social responsibility projects, for two to three months during the summer break, to make them industry-ready and help them gain skills for the job. According to AICTE, less than 1% of engineering students currently take up summer internships.

“The inclusion of mandatory internship, both industry and social, will help engineering graduates connect with the needs of the industry and society at large,” Javadekar said.

Sahasrabudhe said affiliating universities have been told to suitably update the curriculum every year.

Vinod Singh, a second-year engineering student at Truba College, an engineering institute in Bhopal in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, welcomed the changes. However, many private engineering colleges did not have adequate infrastructure and facilities or qualified faculty and the AICTE was shying away from taking strict action against them, he said.

Another engineering student, Purnima Mathur, studying at Samrat Ashok Technological Institute in Vidisha, in the same state, noted that official procedures to set up a technical institute in the country were very simple and, as a result, institutes conducting engineering and technical courses had mushroomed. “But the quality of courses offered by them remains dubious. These institutions churn out engineering graduates but most of them remain jobless.”

Non-engineering courses

The revamped curriculum also makes it mandatory for students in engineering colleges to study non-engineering courses beside their core subjects in order to broaden their horizons and improve soft skills. According to the AICTE model curriculum recommended to universities with affiliated engineering institutions, engineering students should be offered courses in the Indian constitution, environmental sciences, Yoga and other off-beat subjects.

Somewhat controversially, however, the recommended course on Indian Knowledge Tradition includes not only philosophy, linguistics and artistic traditions but also the study of India’s ancient texts, including the Puranas, Vedas and Tarka Shastra or logic.

The Puranas are a vast genre of ancient Indian literature on a wide range of topics and include myths, legends and other traditional lore. The Vedas are considered the oldest Hindu texts, as well as the “Indian perspective of modern science”. This can be controversial as Hindu nationalist politicians in recent years have been pushing the idea that ancient religious texts provide evidence of Indian scientific breakthroughs.

Earlier last week India’s minister for higher education Satyapal Singh came under attack by scientists for demanding the removal of the theory of evolution from school curricula. Singh, who has a chemistry degree from Delhi University, said during a visit to a university in Assam state: “Since man is seen on Earth, he has always been a man. Nobody, including our ancestors, in written or oral, said they ever saw an ape turning into a human being.”

It sparked outrage from scientists across the country and Human Resource Development Minister Javadekar was forced to distance himself from the comments.