WENR

Engineering Education in India: A Story of Contrasts

 

India is a federal republic comprised of 28 states and seven union territories. Education is managed through a partnership of the central and state governments. The central government establishes broad education policies and is increasingly responsible for regulating and maintaining standards in higher education. Federal policies serve as guidelines to the state governments, which administer most schools and universities within their jurisdictions.

Indian Engineers by the Numbers

According to the AICTE, approximately 440,000 students were enrolled in first-level engineering degree programs in 2004-05, 265,000 at the diploma level and 33,000 at the master’s level. By comparison, the seven IITs had a total of 25,000 students enrolled at all levels in 2002-03 (Rao report). Figures capturing the annual number of graduating engineers are a little harder to come by; however, a 2005 study by Washington, D.C.-based National Academies [2] estimates that 200,000 students graduate each year from first-level engineering programs across the country (revised from an original estimate of 350,000). A study by researchers at Duke University [3] pegs the number slightly higher at 215,000, but notes that almost half are graduating from three-year diploma programs.

By comparison, the National Academies estimates that U.S. institutions graduate 70,000 engineering students annually, while approximately 100,000 students graduate from institutions in the European Union. In China, that number is close to 640,000, of which approximately 350,000 graduate from bachelor programs and 290,000 from short-cycle associate-equivalent programs.

In 2002-03, the seven IITs together graduated 2,275 B.Techs, 3,675 M.Techs and 445 Ph.D.s, with 11,700 undergraduates (four-year program), 9,500 graduate students and 3,800 doctoral students. Taking the Duke estimate of 215,000 first-level engineering graduates, IIT bachelor of technology graduates represent just 1 percent of the total graduating class of Indian engineers each year.

Education policy is formulated by a number of bodies under the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE). In engineering and other technical disciplines, the central policymaking and regulatory body is the All India Council for Technical Education [4] (AICTE). The AICTE determines the requirements for new universities and programs of study, and outlines curriculum standards and norms. It also accredits programs through the National Board of Accreditation [5] (NBA).

The main source of funding for public universities and colleges comes from the central and state government in the form of grants, with a small percentage derived from fees. Indian education observers frequently note that many higher education institutions are underfunded, especially in the technical sector, where labs and classrooms are often underresourced and understaffed.

A booming growth in the number of technical institutions has led to particularly acute issues and concerns for the engineering sector, where colleges are struggling to hire adequately qualified faculty, graduates are failing to find employment and regulators are under pressure to improve standards. This article will take a closer look at the challenges confronting the Indian engineering sector after first highlighting some of India’s top engineering schools.

Top Engineering Institutions

Indian Institutes of Technology

The central government administers and funds India’s central universities and institutions of national importance (INI). When compared to other public institutions of higher education, the INIs are well funded and have extraordinarily competitive entrance requirements. Undoubtedly the best known of the 13 INIs [6] are the seven Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT).

The IITs are widely considered to offer the highest-quality technology and engineering programs in India, especially at the undergraduate level. The five original IITs were established between 1950 and 1961 (Kharagpur [7], 1950; Bombay [8], 1958; Madras [9], 1959; Kanpur [10], 1960; Delhi [11], 1961). With strong backing from India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, the IIT network set out to help modernize India by creating a highly educated work force able to complete many of the civil and mechanical engineering projects required to meet the needs of the country’s growing population. Not only did the five IITs help accomplish this, they also built themselves a global reputation in the process that has allowed generations of alumni to find high-profile and extraordinarily well-paying positions at companies around the world. Building on the success of the global brand, IIT Guwahati [12] was established in 1995, and in 2002, IIT Roorkee [13] was established with the upgrade of the University of Roorkee. In a ranking of Asia’s best science and technology institutions by Asiaweek in 2000, the original five IITs were among the continent’s top eight institutions.

It is ironic, however, that the success of the IITs also have caused a number of the Indian technical sector’s shortcomings: the exodus of top manpower overseas, the failure of many bachelor of technology graduates to seek careers in their areas of specialization and the forging of a two-tier system of higher education, which, at the top, is overrepresented by male students largely from well-to-do backgrounds.

National Institutes of Technology

In addition to upgrading Roorkee University in 2002, the government also decided to convert its stock of 17 tier-II engineering institutions — the Regional Engineering Colleges (REC) — to a status similar to that enjoyed by the IITs. The newly designated National Institutes of Technology (NITs), of which there are currently 20, enjoy the same autonomy over curriculum and governance as IITs, and as institutions “deemed-to-be universities [14],” award their own degrees.

In a bid to promote regional development, the government aims to establish an NIT in each state and union territory of the country. Whereas the RECs were funded jointly by state governments and the central government, NIT funding has been increased and is provided exclusively by the central government. Below is a current list of NITs:

Other deemed and central universities that enjoy reputations as top engineering schools include:

At the graduate level, the research-intensive Indian Institute of Science [45], Bangalore; the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research [46], Mumbai; and the Institute of Mathematical Sciences [47], Chennai, all enjoy world-class reputations.

Outside the university system, 38 publicly funded research institutions and laboratories work on applied research under the supervision of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research [48]. Many are recognized as centers for university doctoral work. Although this sector is responsible for significant contributions to Indian research, some argue it also has diverted much-needed funds from university research budgets.

Selectivity

While priority funding is part of the reason IITs enjoy such international renown, the truth of the matter is that IIT funding is still considered by many as inadequate. The secret of the IIT success story lies in the strength of faculty and, more importantly, the talent of the student body.

Prospective IIT students are subjected to a rigorous selection process. Preparation for the IIT Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE [49]) can begin as early as primary school and often culminates in a final year of secondary school that includes up to six hours of training and homework at IIT-JEE preparation schools in addition to regular school classes.

The two-step examination is open to all high school graduates. The first examination screens student abilities in physics, chemistry and mathematics. Those who pass the first hurdle then go on to sit the main examination, which consists of three two-hour papers in physics, chemistry and mathematics. In 2006, a record 300,000 IIT aspirants took the exam; just over 4,000 were offered a place. Two other schools also use the IIT-JEE: Banaras Hindu University Institute of Technology and the Indian School of Mines [50], Dhanbad. If one includes these two institutions, the chances of gaining admission to one of the nine schools in 2006 was 55:1. The ratio of IIT-JEE takers to IIT places was 74:1.

Gaining admission is just half the battle. Once admitted to the IIT system, students are subjected to incredibly heavy workloads and exacting standards. Students must complete 180 credits to graduate from four-year undergraduate programs.

When the NITs were created in 2002, it was originally proposed that they also use the IIT-JEE for admission purposes; however, the IIT Council chose not to take on the extra burden of testing the much larger pool of candidates. Undergraduate admissions are therefore based on the All India Engineering Entrance Examination (AIEEE [51]), the same examination used by engineering schools at other deemed and central universities such as the Delhi College of Engineering, the Netaji Subhas Institute of Technology, three Indian Institutes of Information Technology and the Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra [52]. Administered by the Central Board of Secondary Education [53], the AIEEE is taken by more than 400,000 students. The NITs admit approximately 7,000 undergraduate students annually.

Other schools, such as BITS, Pilani, conduct their own admissions examinations. Those seeking admission to BITS, Pilani, must achieve qualifying grades of at least 80 percent in physics, chemistry and mathematics in their school-leaving examinations to be eligible to sit the entrance exam, or BITSAT. The institute reports an average of just 2.6 percent (38:1) of applicants gain admission each year. In addition, a percentage of direct-entry places are reserved for those who achieve top-percentile results in the high school board examinations.

While the quality of the student and faculty body at many of the above-referenced engineering schools is very high, policymakers, education officials and education commentators increasingly are concerned that standards in Indian engineering education as a whole have declined dramatically in recent decades.

Challenges

The challenges currently facing Indian engineering education have been documented in a number of recent studies and expanded upon in a host of columns, opinion pieces and feature pieces in the Indian and international media. The following is a summary of the main challenges facing the sector and an overview of some of the recommendations made by education committees, lawmakers, academics and observers.

The U.R. Rao Committee Report

In 2002, a five-member committee headed by U.R. Rao, a prominent scientist and former chair of the India Space Research Organization, was established by the Ministry of Human Resources Development [54] (MHRD) to review the performance of the AICTE. Submitted to the government in September 2003, the committee’s report, Revitalizing Technical Education, describes a technical sector that is expanding at an unsustainable level and is in drastic need of regulation to ensure academic standards are improved.

When issued, the report sparked deep controversy and gained global coverage after one of its more minor and tangential recommendations — cutting fees at the Indian Institutes of Management — was acted upon by former Human Resources Development Minister Murli Joshi. The report’s main findings and recommendations center on the following areas:

Institutions Proliferate

A serious situation has arisen in recent years because of the mushrooming of a large number of private technical institutions and polytechnics. Barring some exceptions, there is scant regard for maintenance of standards.
~ Rao Committee report

In the last 15 years, there has been a veritable explosion in the number of technical colleges operating across India. Between 1990 and 2003, the number of engineering colleges alone rose from 337 to more than 1,200 (of which almost 1,000 are in the private sector). This unfettered growth has led to a host of other problems, such as faculty shortages, rising rates of unemployment and a general decline in academic standards.

Despite a projected labor crunch in certain sectors, the rate of unemployment or underemployment among first-level engineering graduates is significant. When compared to annual economic growth of 6 percent to 8 percent, the Rao report argues that an annual graduation growth rate of 15 percent to 25 percent among engineering students is unsustainable. High levels of unemployment are not, however, entirely the result of oversupply. The committee points out that there needs to be greater interaction between industry and the education system so that institutions of higher education can better understand the manpower needs of the marketplace and tailor their academic programs accordingly, especially as relates to the service sector and information technology.

The findings of an industry-sponsored report tend to confirm the committee’s belief that there is a mismatch between the skills students are graduating with and the skills required by the economy’s top revenue-generating sectors. In a study by the National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom [55]), an influential trade group, and McKinsey [56], an international management consultancy, the number of workers required by the information technology (IT) and “business process outsourcing” industry will increase from 700,000 to 2.3 million between 2005 and 2010. However, by current estimates, there will be a shortfall of almost 500,000 workers, as only 1.05 million suitably qualified students will have graduated in that timeframe.

The worker deficit will not be for a lack of graduates — only one in four engineering graduates and one in 10 graduates with generalist degrees are considered employable by multinational companies. According to the 2005 report, the remainder is thought to be lacking technical skills, English competency, communication and presentation skills and the ability to work as part of a team.

Taken together, the Nasscom study and the Rao Committee report suggest that in the near term, Indian education officials need to look at ways of slowing the annual number of engineering graduates so that funds and resources can be directed toward improving the quality of faculty, infrastructure and curriculum over the longer term. The goal is to increase the percentage of workplace-ready graduates.

Geographic Inequalities

While the number of technical institutions has exploded across the country, it has occurred in geographic pockets. The four southern states and Maharashtra combined are home to almost 60 percent of the country’s engineering institutions. Compare this to the eastern and northern states, which are home to just 16 percent of the total. In terms of undergraduate enrollment, the divide is even more apparent. Nationally, an average of 350 students per million people enter technical degree programs; in the south, the figure is 1,047; southwest, 689; west, 486; east, 131; and in the north, just 102. So not only is the education system in the technical sector failing to match the demands of the workplace, a lack of regulation and planning by the AICTE has allowed for geographical pockets of oversupply and undersupply in technical manpower.

As a countermeasure, the committee recommends the AICTE, for a minimum of five years, halt the approval of new undergraduate technical institutions where student intake exceeds the national average. In addition, the committee recommends the establishment of two NITs in underserved states, as opposed to current government plans to establish one NIT in every state.

Faculty Vacuum

The rapid growth of engineering institutions not only has led to surplus numbers of engineering graduates, but also a dramatic shortage in qualified faculty. According to a study cited in the Rao report, an additional 10,000 doctorate holders will be needed by 2008 (report was issued in 2003) to adequately staff engineering faculties across the country. Another study estimates that the Ph.D. shortfall is as high as 26,000 (based on a desired student-faculty ratio of 1:15) with an extra 30,000 master of technology graduates needed to fill vacant lecturer positions.

Although there are more than 300 institutions in India offering graduate and postgraduate courses, almost 80 percent of engineering doctorates graduate from the IITs and the Indian Institute of Science. In 2003, the IITs matriculated just 315 engineering doctoral students, and the countrywide total was no more than 400. The committee, therefore, makes the strong recommendation that steps be taken to increase the number of students graduating from Master of Technology (M.Tech) and Ph.D. programs, including increasing the number of integrated five-year M.Tech programs available to high school graduates.

To encourage more students to enter doctoral programs, the committee also recommends boosting stipends and fellowships, and increasing the financial and professional incentives of beginning a career in academia. To meet current teaching needs alone, Indian postgraduate institutions will have to graduate 500 doctoral candidates a year. The committee believes the current system should be able to graduate 700 to 1,000 doctorates annually if the AICTE makes the necessary financial commitment.

India’s research capacity also is affected by the faculty crunch. The teaching load of professors in all but the top research-intensive schools has increased, and talented potential research students are being attracted by high-paying private sector jobs, or by research opportunities at better-funded institutions abroad. Although reliable figures are hard to come by, the number of students from top-ranked Indian engineering institutions that head overseas after completing their undergraduate studies is estimated by some to be as high as 50 percent. From 1985 to 2000, Indian students earned more than 13,000 science and engineering doctoral degrees at U.S. universities, mainly in engineering and physical and biological sciences. They also earned by far the largest number of U.S. doctoral degrees awarded to any foreign group in computer and information sciences. Among IIT alumni alone, 25,000 are thought to be working or studying in the United States. Furthermore, according to a 1997 OECD survey, over 80 percent of Indian students in the United States have no intention of returning to India after completing their studies.

In an interview with Rediff.com, Professor U.R. Rao stresses there is a large number of Indian doctorates in the United States who would be willing to return to India to take on faculty positions if Indian universities were more willing to take chances on them by offering secure, long-term contracts, rather than one-year renewable contracts.

Others argue that the faculty problem is a systemic one. Writing in a column for BBC Online, Cornell University-based professor Kaushik Basu notes, “The organization of international academe has changed, whereas the Indian university has remained tradition-bound.”

Basu believes the answer lies in breaking “away from the mindset of having one uniform standard for all.” Priority funding needs to be made available for select universities — much as it is in China through the 211 funding system — to develop centers of excellence with the spending power to attract top academics and prevent potential academic stars from being lured by the corporate world. Basu points out that the average starting salary for Indian academics is just US$305 a month, a figure equal to that earned by senior call center employees.

India education experts such as Basu and Rao argue that rather than expending time and resources conducting exams at networks of teaching-only affiliated colleges, which at the larger universities number in the hundreds, technical universities should be allowed to break free of the shackles imposed by the affiliate system to refocus their efforts on research and graduate studies.

The Accreditation Shortfall

In the fields that the AICTE regulates (engineering, technology, management, architecture, town planning, pharmacy, applied arts and crafts, hotel management and catering), institutional and program accreditation is the responsibility of the National Board of Accreditation (NBA), an autonomous body under the umbrella of the AICTE.

Although accreditation is mandatory, less than 10 percent of institutions in the technical sector are actually accredited. Data provided in the Rao report reveals the large gap that exists between the AICTE system of recognition and accreditation: in May 2003, just 985 programs from 202 institutions under the purview of the AICTE had been accredited. At that time, there were approximately 14,000 programs at 3,589 approved degree-granting institutions, and 1,608 approved diploma institutions. The data appears to reveal a general lack of belief in the accreditation process.

Institutions can wait indefinitely to seek accreditation. The Rao report recommends a tightening of regulatory standards, not only to increase the percentage of accredited institutions, but also to weed out substandard institutions. Institutions would be actively required to seek accreditation, and those institutions that fall below minimum standards would be given a probationary period to resolve problems or face cuts in intake or outright closure.

In the field of engineering, the accreditation conundrum is particularly troubling for those that would like to see the Indian engineering sector improve its international credibility through membership of the Washington Accord, a multilateral agreement representing agencies that accredit engineering programs in 12 member countries and accept one another’s standards as an equally high standard. The agreement recommends that graduates of accredited programs be recognized as having met the academic requirements for entry to the practice of engineering in any member country. The AICTE’s latest bid for membership was rejected in 2005.

Admission to the Washington Accord would lend much greater weight to NBA accreditation as students graduating from NBA-accredited programs would enjoy increased international employment and credit-transfer opportunities. However, the AICTE needs first to right its ship after the 2005 membership bid was reportedly turned down for failure to submit required documents by the application deadline. The AICTE plans to reapply for membership in 2007.

With the upcoming application in mind, the AICTE cut a total of 22,722 seats at more than 300 engineering colleges in the months following the failed 2005 bid. The colleges were asked to cut enrollments because of a failure to meet minimum academic, faculty and infrastructure standards. To help meet demand, 16,357 seats were added at approximately 200 other institutions that met AICTE requirements. Indian media also have reported the NBA is working with three independent credit rating agencies (ICRA, CRISIL and CARE) to revamp the assessment of learning outcomes at Indian technical schools.

Creating new IITs and NITs to meet demand and boost research output

Since the upgrade of the University of Roorkee in 2002, plans have been afoot to upgrade a number of other institutions to IIT status. Under the erstwhile government of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance coalition, a committee headed by S.K. Joshi shortlisted seven colleges to be considered for upgrade:

Following the defeat of the BJP in the 2004 general election, the new Indian National Congress-led government appointed a three-member committee chaired by M. Anandakrishnan to visit the seven institutes selected by the Joshi Committee. The subsequent Anandakrishnan report was submitted to the MHRD in February. Based on follow-up discussions, the ministry announced in September that all but Aligarh Muslim University and Jadavpur University were to be upgraded to the status of an institution of national importance, but not as IITs, rather as IIESTs (Indian Institutes of Engineering Science and Technology), an entirely new designation. As an INI, the IIEST would be federally funded and have IIT-like autonomous governance structures.

The new INI designation was suggested by the committee as part of a broader recommendation to encourage innovation and research in engineering and the sciences. Under the proposal, the IIESTs would be required to cut all four-year bachelor programs within five years, replacing them with five-year integrated dual-degree programs (B.Tech/M.Tech) in engineering and also five-year integrated Master of Science programs in applied sciences. Increased funding also would be made available for students pursuing doctorates.

Recent media reports citing high-level government sources, state that negotiations for the establishment of three new IITs in addition to the five IIESTs are also at an advanced stage. The IITs would be situated in the rural and underserved states of Bihar, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

Conclusion

India has some very bright spots of excellence in its technical education sector. The IITs and their alumni command great respect in the global market. India’s second-tier engineering schools are also well-regarded, and have excellent faculty and student bodies. However, with an average of one new engineering college opening its doors a week, the AICTE appears to be struggling to maintain the standards of excellence set by India’s top institutions. As the Rao Committee report has pointed out, the AICTE needs to focus on ensuring that its standards are met at already existing institutions, new institutions are opened in areas that need them, substandard institutions are closed and that faculty shortages are reversed by investing in postgraduate education and encouraging talented students to remain in India to pursue careers in academia.