Many of us who teach undergraduate engineering classes often lament that student interest – whether its participation in class activities, sincerity toward academic work (like projects, homeworks) and curiosity levels – have declined significantly over the last decade or so.
Informal conversations with engineering students across colleges, including the IITs, reveal that students do not find the courses “interesting”or “relevant”. I discovered that many were taking online courses (or going through free tutorials on Youtube and elsewhere) to learn how to code, accounting, or data visualisation. The time spent on these was often at the expense of the time that they should have been devoting to their regular courses.
The reasons students offered to explain this situation went something like this: there weren’t enough jobs and recruiters in their branch of study, and sometimes these jobs were boring, not well-paying. This was evident from the previous year’s placement data which showed that most people had taken up non-engineering jobs. The skills required for such jobs — IT, software, analytics, consulting, finance — jobs had to be acquired from sources such as online courses.
We were curious to see what students had to say about this more formally, and then check what kind of jobs they were actually taking up through the institute placement process.
Here is what we learned from the placement data in our recently published study called “Placements, internal brain drain and academic life of undergraduates at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay”.
Except for Computer Science & Engineering (CSE), and to some extent for Electrical Engineering (EE), students have been predominantly opted for non-engineering jobs.
Median salaries across core engineering and non-core jobs are not very different. However, it is the signalling effect of the maximum salaries (higher for non-core jobs) that drives an aspirational narrative in favour of non-core jobs.
The highest paying jobs — core or non-core — are taken up by students from CSE, EE and to some extent, Mechanical engineering.
The hype about the “one crore plus” packages is misplaced because these are usually for foreign postings. Purchase Power Parity (PPP) conversion between currencies (e.g. INR and USD) makes them not very different from domestic offers. The fraction of such offers is also quite small. Our data puts this about 5 to 10 per cent.
We also learned about student motivation and preferences.
It seems that student choices are driven by higher pay, flexibility in the job profile, better growth on the job, self learning, and an impression that there is a skill-gap between the curricula and industry needs.
This is more complex than it seems because some factors are mere perceptions that are usually “transmitted” from “seniors”. For instance, the talk of a skill gap by students who are effectively disengaged from core studies is not likely to be accurate.
It is also important to remember that the actual student experience is “crippled” by coaching burnout, compounded by the difference between the teaching and learning styles in the college and coaching classes.
An early exposure to the pro non-core job enticements and the easy way out – from the complexities and rigour of specialised discipline knowledge to a simpler world of generic skills such as coding, accounting, extra-curriculars – has a profound influence on student decision making.
The core versus non-core conundrum
Some people argue that we should not worry about whether students take up core or non-core jobs. A common, and rather casual, argument is that it does not matter where they go as long as they find jobs and “serve society”.
A more rigorous point some make is this: core or branch courses teach a discipline in depth along with analytical abilities to solve engineering problems. As these skills have generic components, they are useful even in non-core or engineering jobs.
This argument would have made sense if students were actually engaged with the courses and were actually learning. Classroom experience clearly suggests a great disconnect between the course and a significant fraction of the students. This is a classic case of an abstract argument that seems reasonable but does not actually play out on the ground.
On the other hand, some policymakers worry about “who would build bridges and run the economy” if engineers do not take their core studies seriously.
They then go on to suggest that we should “convince” students into committing themselves to their engineering disciplines through appeals or cajoling. This is also a very naive argument as the decisions of the students are driven by their own personal optimisations and objectives.
If such “economy building” jobs are indeed waiting and have no takers for them because students have gone on to greener pastures, policy makers and paymasters should make these jobs competitively lucrative.
Key questions arising out of the problem
First, why should we waste resources on branches where employment is inadequate? Engineering education is costly and funds could be used elsewhere.
Second, why drag students through such a tortured experience? It is indeed exasperating to deal with a class full of disinterested students, but how much can you fault students for optimizing their lives with respect to salaries, career advancements, or being tempted by package hype, parental pressure or being “trapped” by the placement process?
It is also mentally stressful for students to constantly deal with unpleasant situations like not doing academic work or meeting deadlines, getting low grades (or even failing). This could then normalise cheating, copying, plagiarism, jugaad (the idea of somehow getting away by fooling the teacher), insincerity and deception. It is also demoralising for faculty to teach “zombied” classes, and constantly be at war with students over their conduct.
Third, if the nature of jobs or employment is what it is, institutions should calibrate their engineering branch seats to be more realistic. And also offer more flexible curricula so that students can combine interests, core components, and other skills into an overall fruitful experience.
The problem of a student becoming an “jack of all, master of none” can be tackled with having strong faculty advising services. IIT Bombay has already embarked on doing some of these things and perhaps so have some other institutions. But we need such changes to happen on a much greater scale.
Finally, it is high time that nation-wide surveys are conducted to understand the engineering job market. A country that boasts so much digitisation should be in possession of constantly updated databases, and a research unit that predicts sectoral employment trends. This is surely a good problem for data scientists and AI to solve.
Courtesy : The Indian Express