The engineering college debate: Is more less

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By Do we need more engineering colleges? Or better ones? Hemchhaya De tries to find out
  • Published 25.06.09

About 10 years ago, V. Raja ranked in the early 2,000s in the West Bengal Joint Entrance Exam but had to go all the way to Kerala to study since there were then only around 1,600 engineering seats in the state.

A decade later, West Bengal has 19,637 seats but Prithish Das still had to head to Bangalore to study engineering because his rank fell in the 30,000 bracket and he would not be getting the course of his choice in any college close to his home.

According to a National Knowledge Commission (NKC) report in 2008, the number of Indian engineering institutes offering undergraduate courses has shot up eight-fold over the past two decades. But it notes that there is a “glaring regional imbalance” in the availability of engineering education. The NKC, a high-level advisory body to the Prime Minister tasked with transforming India into a knowledge society, further says, “Two-thirds of the engineering institutions are located in the four southern states, plus Maharashtra, even though they account for less than one-third of the population.”

The southern states are set to increase the number of engineering institutes drastically this year. Andhra Pradesh, which has the highest number of engineering colleges in the country (527), proposes to add 176 colleges, Tamil Nadu proposes to add another 144 to its 352 and Maharashtra 85 more to its list of 239. Lower down the scale, Haryana might add 38 to its existing 116 colleges and neighbour Orissa 53 to increase its number of technical institutes to 121. In contrast, West Bengal, which has 71 engineering colleges affiliated to the West Bengal University of Technology (WBUT), will reportedly add only 20.

Vacant seats

■ Why is the state so stingy about increasing the number of private engineering institutes? First, it believes that by controlling the number of colleges, it can ensure quality students. Second, a large section of academicians in the state says it’s absurd to increase the intake of engineering students when a sizeable proportion of seats in most private engineering colleges remain vacant. “This is more or less the general picture in most West Bengal private engineering colleges,” says Jayanta Bhattacharjee, dean, academics, S.N. Bose Centre for Basic Sciences, Calcutta.

Then there is also the question of enough jobs. “What’s the need for so many engineering colleges? Every year the country churns out hundreds of thousands of engineers, but do they get appropriate employment? There is no parity in demand and supply,” says Anup Kumar Bandyopadhyay, professor, department of electronics and telecommunication engineering, Jadavpur University (JU).

Some, however, especially those connected with private engineering colleges, beg to differ. “It’s a known fact that many companies such as Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and Cognizant Technologies have set up offices in Calcutta because of the presence of engineering colleges in areas like Sector V, Salt Lake. And 95 per cent of the workers in such companies are from Bengal since a company is more likely to go for people who are rooted in one place,” says Satyajit Chakrabarty, director, Institute of Engineering and Management (IEM), Salt Lake. “Even if all our students are good, there would still be only about 19,000 to employ,” he adds. Since Bangalore will always have a larger pool of engineering graduates on offer, “needless to say, there will be a greater number of IT companies operating in a city like Bangalore,” says Chakrabarty. He feels that industrialisation will remain a pipe dream if the state does not increase the number of engineers produced every year.

“We definitely need more engineers, but we also need better ones. Unless we emphasise on quality, these engineers won’t get appropriate employment. They may have to join jobs where they feel under-utilised,” says Kalyan Kar, managing director of Acclaris India, an IT firm at Salt Lake, Calcutta.

Skills gap

■ The employability of engineering graduates is a major concern in India. A recent study by the National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom) found that though India produces more than 6,50,000 engineers every year, only a quarter of them are readily employable. The rest are deficient in the required technical skills, fluency in English, ability to work in a team or deliver basic oral presentations. As a result, companies that recruit these ill-trained graduates have to invest a lot to make them ready for jobs.

“Engineers from eastern states such as Bihar and West Bengal have a firm grounding in the basics of engineering. However, they lack communication skills,” says Siddhartha Sengupta, who looks after applied research at TCS, Mumbai. “There have been demands from various quarters to bridge the gap between the IT industry’s requirement and academic curricula in engineering colleges. But so far, little effort has been made. So most IT companies have to organise their own training programmes after recruitment,” adds Sengupta, a former member of the IT Academic Council of West Bengal.

Moreover, the recession has made things difficult, and only the fittest may survive. “Unless you have quality education, you may be shown the door. So technical colleges across the country should ensure that they have good infrastructure, quality faculty, high teaching standards as well as adequate industry-academia interface. Just theoretical knowledge is not enough; they should take care of skills development. In short, quality and quantity should go hand in hand,” says Kar. According to him, the curriculum in technical colleges should be updated periodically through industry-academia alliances.

According to educationist Samar Bagchi, however, the skills gap is rooted in school education. “Our schools are centres of rote learning and give out certificates without imparting employable skills. The problem continues in college,” he says.

But many complain that private engineering colleges often compromise on quality. “Most private institutes have a major handicap — an acute shortage of quality teachers. Also, very few private institutes invest in developing research facilities,” says Manas Kumar Sanyal, head, training and placement, Bengal Engineering and Science University (Besu), Shibpur.

“The material infrastructure in most private engineering colleges is inadequate while the human infrastructure — that is, teaching staff — is pathetic,” says Amitava Gupta, professor, power engineering department, and director, school of nuclear studies and applications, JU.

Not only do such colleges not have proper infrastructure, they also at times do not have a full-fledged campus.

“I am not against private engineering colleges if they are properly planned,” says Bandyopadhyay of JU. “But there’s hardly any planning; everything is so haphazard. Hundreds of institutes mushroom every year, many without proper infrastructure or faculty,” he complains.

“Most private engineering colleges are profit driven. They like to cut down on infrastructure costs,” admits Sabyasachi Sengupta, vice-chancellor, WBUT.

Autonomy route

■ Private engineering colleges, on the other hand, maintain that government regulatory bodies raise the bogey of profiteering to scare people. They say there is a reason for the infrastructure not being up to standards. “A state-backed university like JU spends more than Rs 2,00,000 per student per annum while we are not allowed to charge anything beyond Rs 41,000 a year per student,” says Chakrabarty of IEM. “People tend to forget that government institutions enjoy heavy subsidies.”

This is why some private engineering institutes in West Bengal feel that fees should be increased and that autonomy should be granted to affiliated colleges that have demonstrated quality education facilities. There is no need, they say, to strangle them with red tape.

“Technical universities in India have been a hindrance to the expansion of engineering education,” says Chakrabarty of IEM, which is affiliated to the WBUT. According to him, technical universities such as the WBUT hold that if autonomy is granted, academic standards may fall.

But “different institutes have different standards, even if they are affiliated to the same umbrella body. One size cannot fit all,” he says. “The implementation of government policies vis-a-vis technical education is hamstrung in states where there is rigid centralised control of institutions,” he says.

Dismissing all allegations of “strangulating” private engineering colleges, the vice-chancellor of WBUT says, “Of course, we’d all like to live in a utopian society where there will be no regulatory bodies. But the government is accountable to the people. We have to check whether private educational institutes deliver the goods they promise.”

The university can deny or withdraw affiliation of a private institute if it falls short of the requirements. In most cases, colleges have been let off with warnings, says Sengupta of WBUT.

“Ideally, an institution should be autonomous, deciding on its curricula or awarding certificates. And there are examples in favour of autonomy — the IITs or St Xavier’s College in Calcutta. But to aspire to such a status, an institute has to ensure the accountability and integrity of its faculty,” says Bhattacharjee.

That brings us back to the basics — infrastructure. If there isn’t decent infrastructure in colleges, they won’t be able to turn out decent engineers — not even if they are granted autonomy or more seats, for that matter.

Additional reporting by Prasun Chaudhuri