One thing I would change about higher ed

- 3 mins

The final prompt for the PFP blog post is “What is one thing that you would change about higher education?” Since this prompt is necessarily vague topic, I am going to assume that it can relate to the system of higher education in India. Before proposing solutions, let us consider the problems with the current system of the higher education in India. These are problems from a student’s perspective; I believe I am only qualified to comment on how the system is perceived by students, irrespective of the intention behind its structure. So here is an abbreviated list of problems that I feel have to be addressed first.

The reader will realize that all these problems are especially pronounced in engineering colleges across the country. Moreover, some of these issues seem virtually non-existent in fields like Medicine and Law, and are really on only charactersitic of the Arts and Sciences. While the problems with the higher education system in India are many and complex, I would like to address this single perspective in this piece, about why the Pure and Applied Sciences in India have a set of problems distinct from Medicine and Law, despite have multiple commonalities starting from entrance exams, testing and evaluation patterns, and even teaching style and quality.

At face value the commonality between Medicine, Law, and even Accountancy, is the final qualifying exam that determines whether or not you are fit to enter the profession. The sciences and engineering fields lack such a test. Standardized examinations do exist to enter graduate programs, and these serve to filter out applicants based on aptitude. Of course, the number of desirable degree granting insitutions for post-graduate education in India are few and far between, and as a consequence are highly saught after; as a consequence, the number of students getting quality post-graduate training is a tiny fraction of all college graduates. The quality of education and research in these universities is higher than other institutions.

Coupled to the relative sparsity of employment opportunities in the industry, there is thus a greater job market in the education sector. This has created a deplorable cycle where a large number of undertrained graduates in science and engineering end up receiving some post-graduate training end up getting employed in small private univerities, thereby perpetuating the cycle of poor quality training to further generations of college graduates. While I do not have ready statistics on the number of positions getting filled each year, this page describes the number of vacancies in different university systems.

So really, quality at the undergraduate level seems to come not from higher education, but really the job market; the Indian Medical Association wouldn’t dream of lowering standards for the MBBS degree, and the Bar council manages its quality criterion. Should there be a more stringent rule for engineers and scientists who enter the industry? I believe there should be. This problem is complicated by the fact that different industries have different requirements, and most beginner level industry jobs involve relatively low risk operations for the new employees. Coupled to the fact that most engineers get trained for specific tasks on the fly, there seems to be no real motivation on their side to codify high industry standards across all engineering schools. (The hiring interviews test on specific skills, which, like other standardized tests can be cracked by most students). A closer look at medical and law colleges reveal that the qualifying exams are controlled by national, government affiliated bodies.

The problems are numerous and complex. If at all an incremental solution is desired, I’d propose insituting a central governing body that monitors the pre-requisites to be considered an engineer or a scientist; no mean feat, but one that will help solve the glut of enginners India is producing today. By setting a minimum cut-off on the quality of education to be considered qualified, engineering will cease to be the go-to school, the default degree for thousands of young Indians today.

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