Engineering students should be creative learners, self-taught and able to apply theory to practice. And while attempting to raise the pass percentage, engineering colleges should not downgrade themselves into coaching shops.

In the recent past, the media, the judiciary and the government have expressed concern over the quality of engineering education in the State. The government is in the process of stipulating a minimum pass percentage for engineering colleges. Doing it without correcting certain fundamental systemic faults may negate the good intentions behind the decision.

A normal engineering degree programme has eight semesters. Each semester should have 75 instructional days. Ninety days are desirable. But practically all universities in Kerala have academic calendars in which the colleges get only 45 to 60 instructional days. This is an alarming situation.

Fewer instructional days are one of the main causes for deterioration of quality. The misplaced priority for examinations and related activities, extending over eight weeks a semester, is the primary reason for the reduced semester duration.

Another major cause for poor quality is the policy followed for promotion of students. For meaningful quality, students should acquire a minimum level of knowledge in the foundation courses before they are admitted to advanced courses. But under the relaxed regulations followed by the universities, students can register even for the final-year advanced courses without passing the foundation courses. In such cases, either the students fail in the advanced courses or the examinations get degenerated into a test of rote memorisation of facts, without any need to demonstrate critical higher skills of application, analysis, evaluative judgment and so on.

Admitting students who have not passed the prerequisite subjects to higher level courses is a major cause for the lowering of quality of graduates and for the low pass percentage.

Delayed admission in the first year is a major problem. Even this year, classes can start only in August and effectively only in September after the Onam holidays. The admission process is intended to ensure social justice, to avoid subjectivity and to act as a valid tool to place candidates in the right rank order. However, it is high time the realisation dawned that admission was not an end in itself. It should be an enabling facility to good education. Because of the delayed admission, the quality of education in the first year is considerably diluted. The reduced working days in the first year particularly affect the weaker students at the crucial transition stage from school to college. One of the causes of large-scale failure in the first year is the reduced duration.

The three system-related constraints mentioned above should first get corrected as essential prerequisites to quality of engineering education. The critical inputs for quality education in institutions having proper infrastructure are curriculum and appropriate instructional methodology. In engineering education, the academic outcomes to be ensured are abilities for application, analysis, synthesis and judgment, which require basic knowledge and comprehension of fundamentals. Mere memorisation is insufficient.

Higher skills

The instructional methodologies adopted by the best of institutions, including the Indian Institutes of Technology, ensure the development of higher academic skills. There is heavy emphasis on assignments, term papers, hands-on experience, short projects and presentations for every subject. Generally, all courses are textbook-based and the instructor gives an overview followed by assignments and projects. It is up to the student to first understand the fundamentals from the textbook, clarify doubts from the instructor and meet the deadlines for assignments. Thus the responsibility for learning through practice is on the student.

A bright student may spend shorter time and a weak student may spend longer time to complete the work. However, it is ensured that all students achieve the expected minimum level, not only in the fundamental understanding but also in the higher critical skills expected. The final evaluations are also done through examinations which cannot be tackled with rote memory alone.

The judicial and governmental interventions directing closure of colleges with a low percentage of pass has to be examined in the context of the above well-accepted instructional strategies. With insufficient instructional time, bad examinations and wrong promotion policies, the colleges and teachers will be compelled to work for a high percentage of pass. The ready solution available is resorting to intensive coaching for better performance in badly set examinations.

The teaching-learning process will focus on memorising answers to standard questions or solving routine problems by memorising formulae and procedures. There will be no room for creative self-learning and for development of higher cognitive skills. The better coaching centres will get recognition as best institutions resulting in further lowering of the competitiveness of our engineering graduates.

The ability to learn by oneself without a tutor is essential for every engineer as the rate of obsolescence of knowledge is very high in engineering. Look at the contradiction where engineering education adopts the coaching mode till the final degree level. The system will produce good and obedient subordinates without creative or practical skills and not creative leaders who are self-reliant and can develop by themselves.

It is the curriculum and instructional strategies which really determine the quality. Appointing qualified teachers and ensuring that appropriate methodologies are used are both within the purview of individual colleges. Once the system-related constraints are corrected, accountability of the colleges for quality can be insisted on. Colleges which cannot meet appropriate quality benchmarks should be closed. The benchmarks are well known and they are used in the accreditation processes. The State and the public at large can take the accreditation status of individual colleges as the basic measure of quality. Instead of merely prescribing a minimum percentage pass, stringent time limits can be prescribed for obtaining institutional accreditation by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council of the University Grants Commission or programme-based accreditation by the National Board of Accreditation of the All India Council for Technical Education.

The author is a former Fulbright Scholar and retired Professor, National Institute of Technology, Calicut.