An engineering student getting trained by an expert
What propels the mad rush for ECE? Is it passion for this engineering stream or merely its job potential?
Once upon an engineering admission season, I met a frail young boy in the gilded evening lawns of Anna University, Guindy. “I want to do Electronics and Communication Engineering (ECE),” he said, even as he furtively looked at his father who was standing next to him. “My father has chosen two or three colleges. I'll pick from them,” he added. Why do so many students prefer ECE? The stream is so popular that in this year's engineering admissions, ECE accounts for one-fifth of the seats chosen by students.
The boy's answer was: “Because I do not like computer science.” Little did he know that there are quite a few computer science modules in the ECE syllabus, including a paper on computer architecture. Besides, every stream of engineering requires some degree of programming knowledge. Thus, students with no aptitude or interest for engineering end up studying it for four long years of their life.
The story repeats every year. So many students take important career decisions based on little more than media reports and the choices made by toppers. ECE is also seen as a mishmash of various streams with its syllabus including basic requirements for software programming such as data structures and algorithms, electrical engineering topics such as power systems and core electronics subjects ranging from mobile telephony to Internet protocols. The supposed advice given to students is: You can always become a software engineer after studying ECE, or a network specialist, or even the area manager of a telecom company. We are witnessing education beginning to mimic a free market, judged solely on the basis of job potential.
An engineering degree is nothing more than a line on the resume which will result in a job. While it was Computer Science before the dot-com bubble burst, now it is ECE. Tomorrow, it will be something else. The admission process is being driven purely by a “herd mentality,” says V. Kamakoti, chairman of this year's IIT-JEE, Madras Zone. Having also served the role of a student counselor at IIT, he says parental pressure has a big impact and students are mostly not allowed to be the architects of their own future. “Students do come up to me and tell they made a wrong choice and that they want to pursue either basic science or arts. The fact that except the IITs, not many universities have the option of allowing a student to do electives in another department is a major drawback.
Though India produces over six lakh engineers every year, less than 25,000 of them go on to do a master's degree. The country produces less than 1,000 Ph.Ds a year. The discipline of electronics engineering, which is all the rage today, produces just a few hundred patents every year, many of them filed by foreign research laboratories that have a base in India.
What many students aspiring to study ECE also do not seem to realize is that about 30 per cent of the graduates do not get a job even a year after completing the course. If students are making irrational choices, universities are even more to blame. Efforts such as the one by the University of Madras to compulsorily award a job-oriented diploma associated with every degree reinforce popular notions regarding the purpose of education.
Western universities have taken a profoundly different approach to the issue of job placements, since it is legitimate to expect only a few to pursue a career in research. While Indian universities are gearing themselves up to orient students to be “industry-ready,” the vision of elite universities abroad is to educate students for a job that does not exist today. By the time this year's freshman students graduate, microprocessors that are at the heart of every electronic device, from phones to laptops, would have become at least four times more powerful. Almost every Indian would have access to a mobile phone. Myriad technological revolutions would have taken place. Nobody can fully prepare them for that world. However, universities can equip today's students to participate in this process of change. Are they doing it amidst this mad dash for job-offering courses, is the big question.