Where are the engineers?

A crisis, pundits on American television often say, is a terrible thing to waste. The recent unpleasantness following the de-recognition of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle by the Indian Institute of Technology administration is a case in point. That the administration found a graceful way to put an end to the impasse and come to some reconciliation with the small group of students involved is, of course, important. But it also gives us occasion to ponder over some bigger questions involving higher education in India.

The issues concerning greater inclusivity for long-marginalised groups and of freedom of speech on campus are important but most university administrators have found effective ways to resolve these problems through models such as affirmative action and diversity policies, gender and ethnic sensitivity training, modular learning programmes, remedial education and so on. Indian universities could adapt these to the local context. Periodic workshops and meetings of senior academic administrators could also help.

A broken engineering education

The bigger and perhaps far more serious predicament is that engineering education is completely broken. Ironically, this is because of the very success of the IITs and engineering colleges. One problem is that economic and public policy interpretations of the problem are inadequate to characterise it fully. Well-worn neo-Benthamite frameworks of interpretation, a resource efficiency study, for instance, might reveal poor teachers or infrastructure, but would miss fundamental insights from fields like culture studies and sociology.

Calling something a societal problem means that more is at stake than just an aggregate of individual ‘interests’ or ‘utilities’. Social scientists recognise that broad patterns of human interaction tend to coalesce into structured routines and maybe even have rules of their own, but that these are always situated in broader historically and spatially defined contexts. In engineering education, we see this in the mad rush for seats in the milieu of rising aspirations cutting across caste and class.

The race for a career

In the past two decades, young men (and rarely women) have been drawn in large numbers towards elite engineering colleges but they cannot simply be understood as autonomous souls drawn towards engineering as an academic discipline. Rather, there is a large set of other social influences pushing them — parents, peers and teachers but also the image of IIT graduates as smart, young, well-dressed professionals in high-paying careers. Most important, this rush has taken place in the context of great churning and economic opportunity, even as more than 95 per cent of the population struggles to find true forms of mobility. In my own case, my father, who had a degree in English literature and became a journalist and later a civil servant, was convinced that I, his only son, had to be educated in an IIT, which he termed a ‘passport’ to the good life. I did actually benefit from my IIT degree in aeronautical engineering, by using it to get advanced degrees in science and environmental policy, which again helped me gain entry into the humanities and social sciences.

For tens of thousands of IIT alumni, similar success stories are evident. But let us look at what happens to the entrants to the system. I categorise three broad sets of attitudes that students develop in IITs. First, there are those who are motivated by the prospect of the passport, largely having come from modest economic and social backgrounds. Earlier they used to have an eye on postgraduate education, primarily abroad, with the hope of securing corporate or academic positions. Today, with the global corporate market demanding IIT talent, students often skip further education. Indeed, the proportion of undergraduates from IITs doing their PhDs has diminished dramatically in recent decades.

The second group is characterised by a deep despondency of some sort, even with outstanding job prospects. Many turn towards non-engineering vocations, ranging from the arts to politics and entrepreneurship, as Chetan Bhagat, Arvind Kejriwal and Mansur Khan have famously done.

It is the third group that is the real motivation for the IITs. This group has a direct interest in solving challenges of technology. They could be experimenters or entrepreneurs but are mostly trying to engage with the material sense in which the transformation of human society is an undertaking in itself. Examples here range from Vinod Khosla and Subra Suresh to numerous other technology leaders across the world.

In all groups, however, students seem to experience many forms of alienation that could spiral into crises where one is forced to take a position unexpectedly. To the extent that IITs are also prone, like every other institution today in India, to asking socially relevant questions around gender, caste, and elite privilege and corruption, politics is always already within its midst. If it has been muted, it was only because of a self-fashioning by its members that the discourse could be ‘apolitical’, itself a doomed venture.

What’s the solution?

The fact that only a third of graduating IIT students fulfil the original vision of IITs to create ‘temples’ or true workshops of technology should give us pause. What does it mean that most of the engineering students today do not seek to work on real-world engineering problems?

Several of my colleagues in the Humanities and Social Sciences, increasingly seen as an oasis for engineering students but also as a threat by many, are routinely solicited for advice, to find options to exit their pre-organised trajectories. Most students are like unwilling recruits in the army, forced to do time, but seeking space to explore other interests. That the APSC issue was read by many as reinforcing the institute’s disciplinary authority, as if it were an extension of cheating, for instance, raised tensions and voices. What, then, should be done about IITs?

First, phase out the undergraduate BTech programme and replace it with a five-year engineering curriculum, but with roughly 50 per cent of time devoted to technology development as an end in itself. The reasons for doing so are many. Primarily, IIT education reinforces elite engineering status by emphasising theory and equations over practice. I learnt a lot of high-level mathematics before I came face-to-face with a real aircraft, where the equations I had studied seemed distant. But what one really needs to build skills and understanding is a greater emphasis on real-world technologies and their operations in relation to economy and society. This is not happening, except in some excellent initiatives such as the Centre for Innovation in IIT Madras. By preferring mathematical puzzle-solving over manual skills, the present system subtly reproduces prejudices in many Indian communities and accentuates certain routines of privilege, both within the student community and occasionally in faculty hiring and promotions. Even the entry into IITs should be based on problem-solving ability as well as demonstrated aptitude for materially engaging with tools and technologies.

Second, turn IITs into nodes that actively foster ‘living laboratories’ across India. If this were a part of a new national mission, each IIT would be expected to build communities of practice within its neighbourhood by drawing on all existing segments of local entrepreneurship, and India has outstanding models. Such relationships should be open-ended and truly experimental if even a few are to succeed.

Third, the Ministry of Human Resource Development should continue to stay at arm’s length from the IITs and indeed all higher education institutions in general. This does not imply privatising them, which would increase fees and further stratify education. Rather, such institutions should be encouraged to experiment with forms of curricula that are expansive rather than particular, and require them to take responsibility for building a collective, inclusive platform for higher education, while providing the resources, both economic and otherwise.

The bottled-up tensions that emerged in the recent IIT Madras crisis are symptoms of a larger, deeper crisis in which all of us are implicated. It is time to recognise these signs and find sustainable solutions.

(Sudhir Chella Rajanis a faculty member of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. The views here are his own.

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Printable version | May 18, 2022 2:39:18 am |