This is a week of farewell parties on engineering college campuses. Talk to any final-year engineering student, and the most common refrain is likely to be on the lines of, “I am all set for the next phase in an IT company. I hope I am not sent back home after training.” Their seniors, working as engineers, have already passed on some time-tested advice — “Nothing you learnt in college is really going to help. Be ready to start from scratch.”

The fact that students of a professional course view their education through this lens is a deeply worrying trend. The IT industry may account for nearly 70 per cent of campus recruitments in Tamil Nadu, but there is a huge disconnect between what this industry wants and what the university trains the students for. Senior IT professionals, in fact, disagree with a report which found that only about 20 per cent of engineering graduates in Tamil Nadu were employable. Their contention: the numbers are even fewer.

“Most graduates fail to apply even basic logic to applications and programs when they come here, because nothing on debugging, testing or coding is taught in colleges,” a senior TCS Project manager tells me.

Companies have evolved different ways to deal with this situation. For instance, Cognizant and TCS partner universities such as VIT, Sastra and SRM. The companies have the first slot in the placement reserved for these colleges, and also give inputs to the syllabus for final-year students. Thus, students are relatively industry-ready by the time they pass out.

However, this practice remains restricted to a few institutions. The larger issue here is that academia has not revamped itself to suit contemporary needs. Those teaching computer science and scripting languages have never worked in the industry, and those in the industry rarely train students. Industry-oriented syllabi can provide one of the best ways forward for a struggling engineering education system. And it is not even a new trend. For instance, IIT- Madras offers as many as 600 industry-related courses, the oldest being a decade-old course on construction that is customised to L &T's requirements and the recent one on Metro rail.

What then of the issue of dilution in content and academic autonomy? A Madras Institute of Technology professor echoes the sentiments of many of his colleagues when he says “There is a world of engineering beyond IT and industry-oriented courses never permit students to get exposed to that. Companies can enter campuses, but not the classrooms.”

And the professor is not entirely wrong. Companies do end up making colleges their own training grounds.

However, the fact remains that they would not have to do so if curriculum offered by the university was adequate.

What colleges need is an industry-related curriculum, mandated by the university that gives the students a gist of processes most integral to the IT industry. This would not only help them bridge the college-company transit, but also preserve the academic autonomy of educational institutions.

The focus needs to be on the basics. Shreya Ramakrishnan, who graduated last year, has a story that best exemplifies this: “The first thing the programming lecturer did in college was give us a list of lines that go into every program, irrespective of the logic. He told us identifying the logic is not something everybody can do and we had better focus on the theory. Four months of training in Infosys however, taught me that engineering starts with basic thinking and is not that difficult. I would have loved to learn that in college though,” she muses.

As Anna University prepares to finalise a new curriculum for the next four years, these are perhaps words its professors should consider.

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Vasudha VenugopalJune 28, 2012