India’s tech-education woes: Is AICTE the problem itself?

A government-appointed committee, headed by IIT-Hyderabad chairperson BVR Mohan Reddy, has submitted a report to the tech-education regulator, All India Coucil for Technical Education (AICTE), recommending that no new engineering colleges be set up from 2020, and that the engineering education capacity be reviewed every two years after that. The AICTE is reportedly considering the suggestions. The 2020 cap is a sensible one given, as per The Indian Express, 51% of the 15.5 lakh BE/BTech seats in 3,921 engineering colleges didn’t find any takers in 2016-17. This means there is a supply glut. The problem is made worse by the fact that a 2017 study by Aspiring Minds found that 95% of engineering graduates were unemployable for the software industry, which accounts for the bulk of engineering jobs. A 2016 survey of some 150,000 engineering graduates (who graduated in 2013), conducted by the same agency, found that only 7% of them could handle core engineering tasks.

The Reddy committee has also recommended that the excess capacity in traditional engineering subjects, such as mechanical, chemical, electrical and civil be converted to bolster capacity in new and emerging areas in engineering such as artificial intelligence, robotics, data sciences, etc. Given capacity utilisation in traditional engineering fields is just 40% compared to 60% for computer sciences, aerospace engineering and mechatronics, this is also a sound recommendation. Yet, the recommendations—however exigent their implementation might be—don’t address the roots of the problem: the AICTE and its abysmal regulation over decades.

The plight of engineering education in the country may be gauged from the fact that another Aspiring Minds study found that less than three of the ten top engineering graduates—ranked on the basis of scores in an employability assessment test—are aware of the research that is happening in their particular areas of engineering. Such a state has come to pass, thanks to the AICTE having utterly failed to monitor the quality of education and infrastructure at most of the engineering colleges that mushroomed in the country in the late 1990s to early 2010s, with the regulator munificent—allegedly prodded on by grease money—with its approval. In the last half a decade or so, the regulator has been forced to shed its inertia as the quality of engineering education and the supply glut in the country became too big a problem to ignore. In 2003, the UR Rao committee had warned of the glut and suggested that a five-year moratorium on approving undergraduate technical institutions be put in force in states where the annual student intake exceeded the national average of 150 per million population.

Over 2014-2018, 75,000 engineering seats have been scrapped annually. There have been other areas where the AICTE has failed as a regulator, too. With very little linkage with industry developed under its watch, the problem of employability of engineering graduates has got compounded—there are gaps between skills that industry wants and what engineering colleges impart, quality notwithstanding. This has meant that industry, given its demand for engineers, has been forced to take on an ever-increasing share of the burden of training engineers.

Given the regulator itself has failed so miserably, the right course of action, one would think, would be to scrap it and bring in a new, empowered regulator. The government seemed headed that way when it talked of scrapping both AICTE and UGC and bringing in the Higher Education Commission of India. It is a pity that it is now pussyfooting on this.

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