Kerala’s Challenges in Moulding Engineers with Qualitative Edge

Thiruvananthapuram: Kerala’s higher education sector witnessed frenzied activities for more than a decade after 2000 with students jostling for medical and engineering admissions, backed by equally ‘ambitious’ parents. It was a blindfolded chase of an unknown future; a pursuit of a socially-acceptable professional career as a doctor or an engineer. In the end, the ‘brightest of the lot’ occupied the classrooms at medical colleges while the ‘less talented’ had to be satisfied with engineering seats. Like-minded students and parents, who were tuned not to think about a career beyond medicine or engineering, overlooked the possibilities offered by science or arts streams.

 

With ‘disruption’ and ‘out-of-the-box thinking’ defining the domain of today’s technology, Destination Kerala gets down to take a close look at the general grouse that Kerala’s engineering graduates lack job-readiness in this era of futuristic solutions, and ways to bridge this gap in employability to help them join the crème de la crème of technocrats

 

Though the situation has drastically changed now with large number of students opting for other fields of study, still the sheer volume of engineering graduates coming out of campuses is simply enormous. With major employers sharing their apprehensions about the lack of industry-readiness in many of the fresh graduates, the employability of outgoing students has become a key issue of concern of late. It has spurred brainstorming sessions at the highest level in search of remedial measures.

Almost half-a-dozen private engineering colleges in Kerala have been asked to close down by the authorities in the last few years. Moreover, AICTE has issued orders for the closure of more colleges as half of the seats remain unfilled in about 800 engineering colleges all over the country. While that could be considered a good move, the moot question remains whether the country needs so many engineers. Statistics suggest that there still seems to be a large number of graduates who struggle to find a job with a good paypacket. Poor employability credentials are the major hurdle which prevent them from finding a decent job.

Hands-on Experience, a graduate’s core strength

An important question is how to cultivate the trend of providing hands-on training in professional institutions. Dr. Arun Surendran, Principal, Trinity College of Engineering in Thiruvananthapuram, concedes engineering faculties should be researchers having hands-on engineering experience. “Only an engineer who works on engineering projects will be able to teach her students about the application side of what they learn. Students will always be eager to learn from such faculties having application-based knowledge,” says Dr. Arun who proved it through the faculty entrepreneurship programme in Trinity College, under which the members of the faculty are now running 15 companies within the campus.

Eminent academicians underscore the importance of employability of candidates who choose to work with reputed companies and corporate houses. “Unless one is planning to start his/her own engineering firm, employability of an engineering graduate is going to be linked to ‘what the employers want?’,’’ says Dr. Arun Arjunan, Senior Faculty of Science and Engineering, University of Wolverhampton in the UK.

Employability or ‘job-readiness’, according to him, does not come through textbook engineering. For employers, candidate’s ability to solve textbook equations is not any longer a yardstick to measure her or his aptitude.
Dr. Arun Arjunan observes the key to it is “academics who encourage ‘learning by doing’ rather than being advocates of didactic models.’’ He thoughtfully points out that it is not possible if the mentor/teacher is not an expert in the field. It is food for thought for private managements which often employ teachers with inadequate educational qualifications. “Engineering colleges should employ leading experts in the field who are active in research and consultancy. A PhD in relevant field is a must to ensure that teachers are at the forefront of knowledge creation through research and do not remain as passive receivers of knowledge from textbooks,” he adds.

Employers look forward to recruit graduates who are fully aware of even the latest developments in their area of study and they also want to learn from the recruits.

According to Dr. Arun Surendran, the effective remedy to get graduates ‘industry-ready’ is to run engineering institutes as consultancies developing high-end R&D. “That is mainly because industrial houses prefer to scout college campuses looking for technological development and research projects which suit their requirements,” he adds.

Nurturing Industry-Readiness

With the whole IT and industry ecosystem now veering towards innovation and creative production, a major overhaul of the existing curriculum is considered to be inevitable by the leading academicians. According to international professional bodies, an engineering curriculum with employability of the taker at hindsight will include 11 key areas – application of fundamental knowledge, analysis and data collection, problem solving, critical reasoning, digital design and measurement, engineering and society, environment and sustainability, ethics and labour law, teamworking and effective communication, project management and finance, and skills for lifelong learning.

“A major prerequisite to increase employability of candidates is industry institute interface. Students need to have great insights on industry operations and companies which come to the campuses need to bridge the gap between theory and application by giving them insights. Companies and institutes both alike share the responsibility to impart such knowledge to engineering students. FISAT (Federal Institute of Science and Technology) has been taking conscious efforts to bring industry giants to our campus in this regard,” says Paul Mundadan, Chairman, FISAT.

Reputed universities and colleges across the world follow a model of curriculum which enables deep learning with a limited number of papers during the four years of graduate-level engineering course. The contrast between the model of curriculum offered in many professional institutions in India and foreign universities is glaringly noticeable.

While the Bachelor of Technology (BTech) in Mechanical Engineering offered by Kerala University comprises 59 papers, the equivalent undergraduate programme in the University of Wolverhampton BEng (Hons) Mechanical Engineering, has just 15 modules. The true distinction is not really in the number of papers charted by each university but the difference in the employability of students passing out from each of them.

Academicians in Kerala’s engineering schools believe that bigger changes in curriculums are not possible overnight. “It is very difficult to include all technology changes in the syllabus,” said Dr. R Sasikumar, Director, CAPE (Cooperative Academy of Professional Education). “These days most colleges have innovation centres and startup incubators which can tackle the issue to a certain extent.”

Meanwhile Blossom Bastian, a research scholar at College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram, raises a very pertinent question. “What can be more disastrous for our future professionals than their decision to face the university examinations by memorising the answers of previous years’ question papers?” Scholars and teachers admit that engineering students are burdened with the volume of the curriculum which drives them away from the ultimate goal of professional education.

Leading minds in the academia foresee a future where passionate students will ignore didactic models of pedagogy, if progress of technology and industries is not complemented by research and training oriented curriculums.