Is higher technical education in India losing sheen?
Despite the emphasis of the Central Government on improving the state of technical education in the country and increasing access to technical education, the number of aspirants for higher technical education in the country seems shrinking, writes Onkar Singh.
The admission process at the undergraduate level in higher technical education in India is nearing completion. However, a decline in the interest of students towards higher technical education is visible. An assessment of the precarious situation would reveal the stark reality. Despite the emphasis of the Central Government on improving the state of technical education in the country and increasing access to technical education, the number of aspirants for higher technical education in the country seems shrinking.
The concerted efforts for making technical education accessible to a larger population are visible as a part of a nationwide push to enhance the gross enrolment ratio in general. In the past few years, a series of new institutions have been set up across the country by the Central and state governments. The private sector also has been facilitated with all kinds of much-need opportunities for setting up new institutions in all parts of the country which has resulted in the rise in the number of well-performing private technical institutions.
Also, there has been a major change in the admission process for admitting students in technical institutions as it is now envisaged to be a single admission test in the country. The single admission test called the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) is presently conducted twice a year by an independent body. This test performance is considered for preparing merit of admission seekers for the institutions in 12 states in the country, while a good number of institutions are admitting students from admission tests other than the referred single admission test.
Fall in number of JEE Mains aspirants
Delving into the statistics of aspirants for technical education in national level engineering admission test - JEE, it is evident that the number of JEE Mains aspirants reduced by 26 per cent in this admission examination held in September 2020, the second exam to be held in the year 2020.
It is worth noting that the performance of candidates in JEE Mains decides the eligible candidates for JEE Advanced i.e. exclusive examination meant for admission to around 16,000 seats in 23 apex technical institutions in the country namely the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), while institutions like the Indian Institutes of Science (IISc), Indian Institutes of Science, Education and research (IISER) and few more also use its merit ranks for admission to them.
The figures show that the number of JEE Advanced applicants has reduced to 1,60,684 in the year 2020 from 1.73 lakhs in 2018 and 1.65 lakhs in 2019. Thus, as many as 36 per cent of students from more than 2.5 lakhs students declared qualified based on JEE Mains 2020 opted out of the admission process to the eminent technical institutions of the country.
The silver lining
Notwithstanding the decline in the number of applicants for JEE Mains in recent years, the silver lining is that the number of admission seekers to higher technical education is still quite large as compared to the number of available seats in the institutions.
Apart from the national-level admission process, the specifics of a similarly placed admission test called Uttar Pradesh State Entrance Examination (UPSEE) for admission to undergraduate level technical education programmes in Uttar Pradesh, as published in newspapers reveal that there have been around 1.23 lakh applicants for admission to 1.35 lakh seats in engineering, management and pharmacy courses in the state in the year 2020. Thus, the plausibility of seats remaining vacant in technical courses through counseling based on admission test is not ruled out in the year 2020, similar to previous years.
Higher technical education in Maharashtra, the second populous state in the country, is no better as per the past data which evinced 49 per cent of engineering seats remaining vacant in the year 2019 as compared to 43 per cent seats remaining vacant in the year 2018.
Looking at the populous states in the country like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu among others, the deteriorating condition of engineering education is equally visible. It may be noted that at the national level, around 50 per cent seats remained vacant in engineering institutions in the year 2019.
The All India Council for Technical Education, the apex regulator for technical education, is seen taking cognizance of this digression of the number of technical students, and certain measures to check it have been announced by the authority concerned. On account of the apparent lack of interest in the students for technical education, the restrictions on the grant of extension of approvals, curtailment of seats, closure of existing institutions, etc. have come about. Also, the revision of the model curriculum with larger stress on vocational training, skill development, the inclusion of interdisciplinary courses, etc. has been tried by the regulator, but with little gain.
Therefore, the moot point is to figure out the reasons for the exodus from professional courses in the ambit of technical education.
In spite of the decreasing rush for technical education in India in general, the specific disciplines largely sought after by the students are computer science and information technology-related courses in the fast-evolving age of technology. Core traditional engineering disciplines such as civil engineering, chemical engineering, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering among others seem to be losing sheen as they are becoming less preferred by the new generation of students.
Invariably, every year, academics have considered this challenge seriously. But the trend of the shift from technical education to other courses amid the changing world scenario could not be checked year after year. It continues to pose a major challenge. It is true that the COVID-19 pandemic that has pushed the world to a life of new normal has affected the admission scenario across all streams of education in all parts of the country. The education sector in the country is also undergoing changes with the new education policy introduced in 2020. However, identification of discernible factors for this evident shift from technical education since many years is inevitable, else the reducing number of technical professionals may cause bigger damage to the growth of society and the country as a whole. Is it the curriculum of the course or the teaching-learning process that is lacking? Or, do we draw a faultline in the knowledge creation and dissemination?
A closer look at the curriculum of technical courses in institutions would reveal that these are by and large similar across the nation. The suitability of technical graduates for higher studies and industries in foreign countries ensures its worthiness with respect to the current curriculum in technical education institutions abroad. Especially at the undergraduate level, the model curriculum prescribed by the apex regulator of technical education acts as the baseline. And, the technical education providers are today ensuring it along with offering additional content to enhance the employability of graduating students.
It may be noted that the intrusion of artificial intelligence, information technology, the internet of things, big data, cloud computing, etc. is taken care of by the institutions to a great extent. However, at the undergraduate level, there exists a limit to the integration of technological advancement in the curriculum framework. The duration of programme, contact hour limitation and the need to enable technical graduates with basic skills and capabilities of understanding and analyzing the equipment and processes in their engineering domain offers constraint to updation of curriculum beyond a point. It is rarely seen that the industry finds it difficult to train and use the potential of the technical person hired by them, which is possible only with the sufficiency of the curriculum with respect to basic skills and domain knowledge. So, the growing nonchalance for technical education is not majorly due to the curriculum of technical courses.
The next element affecting the quality of education is the teaching-learning processes as the grooming of the huge number of aspiring students as engineers and technologists depend on the efficacy of these processes. The quality of graduating students depend on the rigour of the prevailing teaching-learning processes. The prevalence of hugely varying commitment and effectiveness in carrying out teaching activities are conspicuous. One can easily infer the likely quality of teaching by looking at the parameters responsible for it in every institution which include the availability of the number of teachers in general and senior teachers in particular, the availability of infrastructure facilities for classroom and laboratory teaching, the integrity and effectiveness in the enforcement of academic regulations and its worthiness, the industry exposure to students during course and emphasis on personality development & soft skills, etc.
The laboratory component and hands-on practice need adequate strengthening in technical courses for preparing the students job-ready with specific required job skills. It is the learning gap, that makes one technical graduate inferior to the other in terms of technical competence, and the same is demonstrated by the varying performances of the students from different technical institutions in the country.
The much-hyped unemployability of technical graduates is primarily due to deficiencies in the teaching-learning activities. The differing quality of teaching-learning processes necessitates honest introspection by the academics of the respective institution, lest stopping the migration of students from technical education becomes an onerous task.
Knowledge creation and dissemination
Unquestionably, the impact of any educational institution is felt by society through its engagement in knowledge creation and dissemination. Research and extension activities in technical education institutions are an integral part of their operating system. Professional courses essentially require to keep teaching staff and students abreast of the ongoing developments and also sensitize them for exploring the possibilities of innovations. The research activities are key drivers for knowledge creation and mostly depend upon the postgraduate students, howbeit the involvement of undergraduate students in research activities is not prohibited. Presently, the technical education providers are prominently focusing upon undergraduate education and unable to check the migration of brilliant Indian students to foreign countries for postgraduate education.
Also, the availability of students in postgraduate programmes is not very encouraging. Leaving aside the apex technical education institutions, the other institutions are finding it difficult to fill their seats with good merit students. This leads to reduced potential in regards to the quality of research outcome and innovations which in turn adversely affects society’s perception about the quality of the institution.
The sector-wise distribution of workforce in different economic sectors of the country shows that 26.18 per cent work in the industry sector, 32.33 per cent in the services sector, and 41.49 per cent in the agriculture sector. Thus, more than 50 per cent of India’s dependable workforce is engaged in the industry and services sector. The potential of the industry sector needs to be vigorously increased for creating a global impact, which may be available in due course as a consequence of the ambitious initiatives or policies of the Central government such as Make in India and Self-sufficient or Self-reliant India (Atmannirbhar Bharat). The pace of growth of the economy directly affects the employment potential and it eventually affects the process of career selection by the young generation. The tapering of job opportunities for technical graduates is one of the major factors for swinging students away from technical education. It goes without saying that the huge youth population of the country if trained properly with world-class technical education can change the country for the better as the potential technical manpower feeder for the rest of the world.
In fact, perception plays quite a crucial role in the minds of young aspirants and their families. An honest appraisal of the process of choosing a career shows that the students at the secondary level are propelled by the available career choices and opportunities, pride attached to the programme of a study, social acceptance and recognition, and their inherent interest or passion in studying particular courses. Consequentially, the decline in the demand for higher technical education requires a truthful assessment of all tangible and intangible factors responsible for it as the rolling out of the reduced number of a qualified and competent technical workforce may limit the realization of the demographic dividend of the country.