Kerala has put the FUN in dysFUNctional engineering education . High time we fixed it

Kerala has 14 districts . It barely has any significant industry or agriculture any more. Outside IT and some government owned companies – there really isn’t much demand for engineers . Yet we have more than a hundred engineering colleges churning out thousands of engineering grads every year . How does this compute ?

I was born and raised in this system that put a premium on engineering education as a big accomplishment . My dad is an engineer too and the sole reason I chose mechanical engineering as my major was because my dad is a mechanical engineer . The big difference is that he is a really good engineer and I am terrible at mechanical engineering . For all intents and purposes – I should not have been a mechanical engineer . I should have studied computer science instead as that is where my talents were .  

 When my batch graduated – the top 5 students in my class got real mechanical engineering jobs . The rest of us struggled to find any job immediately . Some including me went and did our masters , some others found their calling in IT . Few others chose to start non engineering businesses . Only a few did anything relevant to engineering . And of those five top students – to the  best of my knowledge only one chose to remain in a pure engineering job . The other four moved to IT for better career prospects . 

That was in 1992 that I went to engineering college . 23 years later – nothing has changed . Plenty of mechanical engineers come out of colleges every year with supply exceeding demand by a factor of probably 100 or more . There is not any real counseling done to help students pick the right choices in college . Those that do counsel usually have no relevant experience themselves and hence lack credibility , even though their intentions are pure and noble.

It is high time supply and demand found an equilibrium in engineering education.

Quality and content of education needs a big revision – my dad and I learned more or less the same text books . The Automobile engineering I learned in college had no relation to the cars coming out into the market in the 90s. Sadly – that is still mostly the case in 2015 too . A good portion of engineering education is irrelevant or incomplete to be useful in actual work environments . I found it first hand in my first job when I could not read a complex engineering drawing of a machine quickly . Why ? Because the most complex drawing I ever did in college was of a piston or a valve . Students are not prepared for real life scenarios in engineering colleges – the onus is on first employers to teach them the basics . It is unbelievable that we send out engineers into the field without a formal apprenticeship . Will you go to a doctor who did not complete apprenticeship ?

Which brings me to teachers . When there are hundreds of new engineering colleges , how do you find teachers ? You essentially hire new college grads as teachers and let them teach subjects that they barely know themselves . It is a huge injustice to a few generations of engineering grads that they will get taught by incompetent and inexperienced teachers . Sure those teachers will gain experience over time – but the damage this practice created will not be undone for the students . Outside the top few colleges , I am not aware of teachers working closely with industry . So their chances of being exposed to latest developments and challenges in their field is minimal or non existent .

If vast majority of demand for engineers is in IT field , why can’t colleges have more IT options available ? Why continue to churn out mechanical and electrical engineers who then turn into programmers ? Why not just teach them what the market wants and needs ? By all means let’s have mechanical engineering seats available for kids who have the interest and aptitude for that . But please stop the factory model for engineering education for fields where demand is low.

There is an argument to be made that the rigor of engineering education prepares students to analyze problems better in later life . That is true and fair . However , there are other things that an engineer needs to succeed – like the ability to make a presentation , file a status report , run a team meeting , create a budget etc . Our engineering educations ignores this aspect completely and transfers the responsibility to employers to act as finishing schools . Innumerable career disasters have happened because colleges do not take care of anything more than theoretical aspects of pure engineering . 

While we learned how to use a lathe and milling machine , we never learned how to use a wrench or a screw driver to repair something . There is zero emphasis on maintenance in engineering education . And in real life , engineers spend most time in maintaining existing stuff than creating new stuff . Professors don’t know this or they don’t care – and probably because they rarely visit a real shop floor . 

It is time to hit the reset button . Incremental changes have happened and they are not sufficient to make Kerala competitive in the global economy . This needs serious disruptive thinking and execution . It needs people from several backgrounds to come together – ideally led by a combination of academics and industrial experts . Time is passing us by and if we don’t act now – it maybe too late to stop this man made disaster . Those of us who have been through the system and have seen its effects owe it to the next generation to help change the system .


5 thoughts on “Kerala has put the FUN in dysFUNctional engineering education . High time we fixed it

  1. Very true, rightly said. One quick question. what can we suggest to the youths (other than Engg) who are currently in schooling ?

  2. Its the same in every state of Southern India… Engineering colleges is a big business backed by politicians.. In my home (broken into 2 states)state – AP/TG, you can get free engineering scholarships to study… All you need is a reservation certificate… :)-

  3. Vijay,
    You rightly pointed out the problem with teachers in the colleges.
    “Hire new college grads as teachers and let them teach subjects that they barely know themselves”.
    Teachers shape up the students for the future. Teaching as job in India is as well not the first option. So the smart grads join the industry or move abroad seeking opportunities and even the ones who start in teaching are the ones who were not the best of students in their grad days.
    But great blog and the views stand for not only Kerala state I believe.


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