Sunday, 16 December 2012

The State of Engineering Education in India

A recent survey has concluded that more than 75% of the engineers graduating from a myriad of technical institutes, engineering colleges and deemed universities are not employable. This claim has been contested, quite understandably so, by the Chairman, All India Council for Technical Education. The Chairman, AICTE says that the NASSCOM survey is misleading and if more than 75% were really unemployable than there would have been a massive unrest on the streets. He, however, concedes that the majority of engineering graduates are underemployed. Of course they are underemployed, Mr. Chairman! One doesn't really need an engineering degree for tele-marketing which is more or less what the work in call centers involves. I am right now looking at a few graduate engineers from CSE/IT background who have no idea of algorithms and can't write a decent piece of functional code for Gaussian elimination! Another post-graduate in Electronics and Communications has no clue about the sampling theorem! No wonder then that the industry finds such engineers unemployable. Naturally, these people are content with desktop publishing/data entry jobs for a "salary" of Rs. 10000/- per month.

Most of the young graduates have only one immediate aim: secure a job and support the family to climb the social ladder. Unfortunately, it is extremely demoralizing for the youth to find the hard way that the promised job security of an engineering degree is a myth. The mad rush for engineering degrees has led to mushrooming of technical institutes of dubious quality often run by fly by night operators. Many parents send their ward to study engineering in these institutes after payment of hefty fees which often eats into their savings of lifetime. These parents are taken in by the claims of 100% placement of graduating students in reputed companies. What they don't realize that a majority of these "hired" graduates are soon fired following a dismal performance in the in-house test after the induction programme in the firms that these unsuspecting souls join. This failure statistic does not make it to any advertisement brochure: for a failure is orphan. These fired graduate engineers then take up jobs as desktop operators, etc. merely to avoid the social stigma attached with a jobless engineer. How long can this continue? Had it not been for the BPO industry, we would have had a massive unrest on the streets. And I am not even referring to the unhealthy work hours of the so-called graveyard shift and its long-term impact on the social fabric. A song by Gulzar in his 1971 film "Mere Apne" succinctly captures the emotion:

"Haal-chaal theek thaak hai
Sab kuchchh theek thak hai
BA kiya hai, MA kiya
Lagta hai woh bhi ainvey kiya
Bas kaam nahi hai baki sab theek thaak hai!"

In 1970s, there was a proliferation of graduates and post-graduates thanks to the state funded cheap college education. But these degrees were not even worth the cost of paper on which those were printed as far as their job potential was concerned. The situation today is similar, except that we may now replace BA and MA with B.Tech. and M.Tech., respectively. However, these professional qualifications come at a price: often a lifetime's savings of ambitious parents. It is nothing short of a calamity for a parent to discover after spending his hard earned money to buy a professional degree for his ward that it has no market value. This simmering discontent is a time-bomb waiting to explode unless urgent corrective steps are taken by the powers that be. It is not that the decision makers are not aware of the problem. The Minister for Human Resource Development is on record saying that about 90% of the privately funded universities do not meet the basic requirements for a university (albeit this was in reference to non-technical courses). 

Yet another study has claimed that in 2012 the arts and science graduates were offered more jobs than engineering graduates. May be this is a good trend as it will prevent a mad rush for cheap (not inexpensive!) engineering degrees on offer and only those with an aptitude for engineering will opt for a rigorous programme. 

Sunday, 28 October 2012

On the conviction of 7 Italian scientists by an Italian court for failing to predict earthquake.

It is interesting to see everyone getting worked up to defend the convicted scientists by a judiciary which probably lacks in scientific temperament and hence unable to interpret the disclaimers implicit in scientific research and publications. The examples abound, for example, "My results suggest that expected value of PGA (or, spectral acceleration at period T, for that matter) is X (but while I want this result to get published, I'll neither defend this result in any public scrutiny or discussion forum nor shall I take any stand on this matter on public policy matters)."

It is easy to plead innocence and take a detached view from the high pedestal of scientific study. But of what use is a scientific study (especially if undertaken on taxpayer's money) if the authors themselves are so noncommittal about the veracity of the results? I wonder if it has occurred to my learned colleagues that the scientists in question might have secured a huge amount of taxpayers' money as a research grant for predicting earthquakes? And the public there might be furious at having been cheated out of their money by the false promises held out by such seismologists. Earthquake prediction is a very interesting topic and never fails to touch a chord with the common population. Why, even our former president Dr. APJ Kalam was so fond of earthquake prediction that he made it a point to mention it in his convocation address at IIT Roorkee despite being advised against it. Little do people realize that earthquake prediction is not a tenable policy for earthquake disaster mitigation. Even if one were able to predict an earthquake with 100% accuracy, it does not help in protecting the investments in the region. Only a sound earthquake resistant design policy and compliance can ensure that. 

It is good that this conviction has provided an opportunity for public debate on the relevance of scientific research. About 10 years back after the 2001 Kutch earthquake, massive investments in setting up of network of seismological instruments were recommended by a committee of European/American experts invited by the Department of Science and Technology, Govt. of India. The primary reason for this was seismological instruments can record small earthquakes which occur frequently and we may not have to wait for indefinitely for recording strong motion data. Realizing the futility of the exercise, one of our colleagues had written to various stake holders about this enormous wastage. Fortunately, a moderate earthquake at Chamoli in 1999 had provided us with enough data to support our assertion that the characteristics of ground motions change significantly with the size of the earthquake. Whatever design recommendations may be inferred from the analysis of low-magnitude small earthquake data, may be widely off the mark for the case of strong earthquakes against which the protection is to be sought. But the decision makers who dole out public money for scientific research chose to ignore the hard facts and went ahead with massive procurement of seismological instruments from European/American manufacturers on the recommendations of European/American experts!  

It is time for the scientific community to pause and think about the relevance of the studies being undertaken in the name of scientific research!

Friday, 11 May 2012

Higher Education: Aims and Objectives

 In response to Mr. S.R. Durai Eswaran's letter published in Reader's
 Mail section of New Delhi edition of The Hindu dated November 07, 2005
   Reader's Mail (The Hindu)
                      IIT Roorkee's ways

   I joined the M.Tech course in the Earthquake Department of IIT Roorkee in June 2004 after clearing GATE with a score of 92.85. GATE-qualified candidates are eligible for an MHRD (Ministry of Human Resource Development) stipend of Rs.5,000 per month. Then I came to know that in the Earthquake Department during the previous year the professors had detained and sent out 50 per cent of the students registered with the department (including many with GATE scores above 99), wasting their one precious year. They were asked to pay back the total stipend to get their GATE score card back!

   As I was not ready to take the risk of wasting one precious year, I left that course and took another course in the Civil Department in the self-financing category. I thus lost my monthly stipend of Rs.5,000 because of the arbitrary policy of the Earthquake Department. How can they detain 50 per cent of the students thus?

 S. R. Durai Eswaran,
 F-105, Jawahar Bhawan, 
 IIT Roorkee.


It is indeed heartening to note that the students at IIT Roorkee feel
free to voice their opinion publicly on issues pertaining to academic
matters of the institute. This proves that I.I.T. Roorkee has
succeeded in creating an open environment on the campus in line with
Sri Rabindranath Tagore's dream (as envisioned in his celebrated
poem--Gitanjali). Unfortunately, Mr. Durai Eswaran has chosen to
imbibe only the freedom of expression and seems to have given the
emphasis on knowledge and tireless striving a complete go by. Mr.
Durai Eswaran has not presented the facts correctly and seems to have
concluded hastily on the basis of inadequate/wrong data.

We wish to put forward the following points to ponder in view of Mr.
Durai Eswaran's comments.

Factual Errors:

The figure of 50% of the registered students being sent back is
not correct. The academic programme of a total of 6 students
out of 21 registered that year was terminated at the end of
first semester on account of poor academic performance. The
Grade Point Average of these students was in range 1.3-4.67 as
against the institute requirement of a minimum of 5.00 (out of
a maximum of 10.00) for continuation of programme. Such a low
grade point average clearly indicates these students had
serious difficulty in coping with the academic workload and had
performed poorly across the board in all courses including one
offered by the Department of Mathematics. This is particularly
so when the evaluation for a course in I.I.T. is done
continuously over the entire semester and is not based on the
performance in just one final examination. Given the heavy
subsidy that goes into funding of the higher education, the
students are expected to earn their assistantships--not claim
it as a matter of right!

Difference between Undergraduate and Postgraduate Education:

Each milestone in the process of learning is associated with a
set of target skills and values. While the undergraduate
education is all about development of problem solving skills
with the application of existing knowledge, the emphasis of
postgraduate education is on the development of analytical
ability and capability to develop new knowledge and
methods/techniques. Familiarity with the fundamental concepts
in science and engineering is considered as a given in
postgraduate education. It is the students' lack of
appreciation of the objectives and aims of postgraduate
education that leads to a miserable performance in postgraduate
courses even though they had demonstrated excellent problem
solving skills (a.k.a. high GATE scores).

High GATE score: Is it a valid measure of intellect?

The GATE score is just an index for the purpose of admissions
to academic programmes. It is--like any other objective measure
of intellect--not without its limitations. Like the Joint
Entrance Examination for admission to undergraduate programmes
in I.I.T., several coaching centres provide intensive coaching
to secure high score in GATE--an examination to test the
problem solving skill achieved at the end of undergraduate
programme. This does not necessarily imply that a person with
high GATE score will have very good analytical skill.

We are thankful to Mr. Durai Eswaran for giving us an opportunity to
address our concern at root of this problem of non-performance of
supposedly good students in some postgraduate programmes. The quality
of undergraduate technical education in the country has been declining
steadily over the past several years. Most of the students that we
admit to our postgraduate courses are completely blank about the
fundamental concepts. This complete lack of analytical ability is
possibly caused due to encouragement of learning by rote in most of
the universities and colleges in this country. The picture is rather
gloomy as the academic performance of a student in most of the
universities and colleges is measured on the basis of scores in final
examination which encourages memory driven approach to taking
examination--not quite sustainable in the long run!

Finally, we would like to point out that mere securing admission to an
institution of higher learning does not guarantee the award of a
degree from that institute. The students have to earn their
degrees/diplomas and having earned them they should feel proud of

Inequitable distribution of teaching responsibility: Follow up

Some time back I had raised the issue of apparent disparity in the teaching load of faculty members in academic departments of the institute and the rules for sharing of teaching responsibilities amongst faculty colleagues. I did
not receive even a single response pointing to a regulation governing the
distribution of teaching load! Subsequently, I collected information about
the distribution of teaching load in a typical semester in various
departments and prepared a summary which is appended at the end of this
text. In working out these numbers, I have given a greater weightage to
the lecture hours followed by tutorial and practicals in that order to
decide the listing under Minimum/Maximum load. Further,
the hours devoted to B.Tech./B.Arch. projects have not been counted in as
this information was not available for all departments. While statistics such
as these provide some basis for comparisons they donot protray the whole
picture. A major omission is the latent effort put in by the course instructors
in core courses with large under-graduate population. The massive effort that
goes in the evaluation of students registered for these courses is not
reflected in these cold figures of weekly contact hours (L+T+P).

As far as the total contact hours are concerned, the disparity is most
glaring in the Architecture and Planning Department. The Professors put
in about 8 Hours (L+T+P) per week on average while Asst. Professors put in
about 18 Hours on average. Moreover, the Professors are primarily involved in
teaching of Post-Graduate courses while the youngsters take up the bulk of
under-graduate courses. Regarding practicals/tutorials in architecture, I
can say from my limited exposure to architecture during my undergraduate
training that these are not "canned" practical sessions based on
experimentation, observation, data collection and interpretation. Each student
needs to develop an independent solution for a set of design constraints. In
this respect the supervisory control and guidance to nurture the individual
thought process is very important leading to an increased involvement of the
course instructor/tutor.

In chemistry department, most of the senior colleagues engage only 1 or 2
lectures per week. Their contact hours are beefed up by a corresponding
increase in the practicals where---I am sure---they must be ably supported
by their research/teaching assistants. The younger colleagues are required
to put in more lecture/tutorial hours in comparison.

The younger colleagues also put in relatively more teaching effort in
Civil, Chemical, Mech. & Ind. Engg., Mathematics and Physics as the summary
suggests, whereas the electrical and electronics and computer engineering
departments appear to follow the policy of equal sharing amongst all faculty
members. However, the senior colleagues in electrical engg. and mechanical
& industrial engg. are primarily involved in postgraduate courses whereas
the undergraduate courses are handled by the younger colleagues. This
trend of senior colleagues distancing themselves from undergraduate
teaching is unfortunate in my opinion. The young and impressionable minds
of the undergraduates deserves the experienced handling of the senior

I hope that this summary and analysis will lead to an in-house discussions
and rationalization of the sharing of teaching responsibility between faculty
colleagues within a department.

    Weekly contact hours (L-T-P) of faculty members in some departments
Architecture and Planning
                         Minimum            Maximum         Average
Professor                  3-2-3             6-1-1          4.2-1-3
Assoc. Professor      1-2-6             3-2-6          2.4-1.7-6.7
Assistant Professor  2-5-9             4-6-6          2.7-3-11.4

Civil Engineering
                         Minimum            Maximum         Average
Professor                 0-3-2              4-3-0           2.3-2.2-1.9
Assoc. Professor      3-0-6              4-7-0           3.1-4.2-2.7
Assistant Professor  2.5-0-8            4-8-0           3.0-4.9-2.8

Chemical Engineering
                         Minimum            Maximum         Average
Professor                  3-0-3              3-0-6         3-0.5-4.8
Assoc. Professor      3-0-9              6-3-4         4.4-1.6-6.2
Assistant Professor  5-2-7              6-0-10        5.5-3.6-5.8

                         Minimum            Maximum         Average
Professor                  1-2-8              4-3-4         2-1.6-7.6
Assoc. Professor      3-0-10             5-3-4         4-1.5-7
Assistant Professor  2-4-10             5-5-6         3.4-7.6-7.7

Electrical Engineering
                         Minimum            Maximum         Average
Professor                  3-0-4              6-2-8           4-2-6
Assoc. Professor      3-2-2              6-3-6           4-2-6
Assistant Professor  3-0-8              5-6-4         3.1-2.2-8.2

Electronics and Communication Engineering
                         Minimum            Maximum         Average
Professor                 3-1-5                 6-0-5          4.7-1.2-3.4
Assoc. Professor     3-4-2                 6-2-3          4-3.3-2.7
Assistant Professor 3-3-5                 6-5-0          5-3.2-2.4

                         Minimum            Maximum         Average
Professor                 5-2-0              6-2-0           5.8-2.2-0
Assoc. Professor     6-3-0              6-3-0           6-3-0
Assistant Professor 8-3-0              9-2-0           8.4-2.6-0

Mechanical and Industrial Engineering
                         Minimum            Maximum         Average
Professor                 3-1-4              6-2-2           3.3-2-4.2
Assoc. Professor      3-2-6              6-3-6           4.4-3.4-4.8
Assistant Professor  3-1-8              9-2-8           4.9-1.8-7.1

                         Minimum            Maximum         Average
Professor                 4-0-2              4-2-3           4-0.9-2.9
Assoc. Professor     4-0-4              5-0-4           4.3-0-4.3
Assistant Professor 5-0-6              6-1-4           5-1-5.5

Friday, 27 January 2012

Inequitable distribution of teaching responsibility at IIT Roorkee - why?

More than a month has passed since the beginning of the new academic session
and I have been wondering about why some of my colleagues are saddled with a
teaching load of about 20 hours per week whereas other faculty members in the
same department have only 6 to 8 hours of teaching commitment. What is the
reason behind this disparity? I would greatly appreciate being enlightened on
this issue. Is there some kind of rule written somewhere that governs the
sharing of teaching responsibility? At least I am not aware of any such
rule/guideline nor is such a practice followed in other IITs. The number of
courses to be taught in a semester is a collective responsibility of the
department and should be shared equally amongst all faculty members.

In these times when we complain of shortage of faculty members, a simple
gesture of being considerate would go a long way to attract and retain the
young talent. We should be more welcoming to the new comers and try and make
the process of their assilimilation into the IIT Roorkee fraternity as pleasant
as possible. There are so many problems that a person has to deal with when
he/she relocates to a new place that the mere thought of teaching three
courses immediately on arrival is often enough to drive that prospective
talent miles away from Roorkee. Will it not be a more welcoming and caring
gesture if the concerned person is asked to teach just one course of
his/her preference? From the next semester onwards, the person can be
reasonably expected to share the collective teaching responsibility at par
with others. Similar consideration can possibly also be extended to the
retiring faculty. We can certainly afford to be little more considerate and
let him/her teach course of his/her choice in his last semester as a mark of our
gratitude for his/her contributions to the department and institute. This
caring attitude would go a long way in improving the working environment and
inter-personal relationships in the department. After all a positive leadership
breeds a positive attitude.

A good academic institute is known by the quality of the research output
that it generates and it is our duty to look beyond short-term personal
gains for the greater common good of the institute to which we all owe our
identity. It seems ironical that we lay so much emphasis on the research
potential of candidates before hiring them and then refuse to give them
adequate time to pursue their research interests! An egalitarian basis for
sharing teaching responsibility would enable the younger colleagues to devote
more time to research for which they have been hired in the first place! If we
continue putting too much burden on the younger colleagues, we may eventually
end up losing on both fronts: the younger colleagues will soon lose the spark
and zeal for implementing their research ideas, and the quality of classroom
teaching will be below par. Enhancement of research activity is necessary for
improving the quality of teaching because of the new insights gained in the
process and this in turn makes the lectures more stimulating and worth
attending indeed!

The above may be an utopian ideal and not all newcomers may be able to
realize their potential fully but then there would definitely be some who
would and that would make the difference between an average teaching
institute and a respected research institute. Let us all chip in and
contribute our bit to let IIT Roorkee be known for its research output,
rigorous academic standards and not just for the beautiful campus and great

"Freedom is nothing else but the chance to do better."
-- Albert Camus