Innovation in Engineering Education: The Present and The Future

Greeshma Sukumaran
Published: October 2018

Engineering education in India has witnessed a major shift in structure, size, ownership, regulations, and overall quality since 2000. The country has gone from having a handful of colleges and universities offering engineering programmes to multiple institutions that have engineering as a part of their curriculum. Greeshma Sukumaran has a conversation with three senior officials from the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Govt. of India and All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) during their recent visit to Jain (Deemed-to-be University), to understand the current trends and future prospects of engineering education in India.

Learning Beyond Textbooks

Amongst the dignitaries who graced the University’s global campus was Dr. Abhay Jere. Dr. Jere is one of India’s prominent scientists and is presently at the helm of affairs at the Innovation wing of MHRD. He shed light on various innovations spearheaded by the Ministry such as the ‘Smart India Hackathon’ (SIH). Here is an excerpt from the interview:

‘Innovation’ is the buzzword everywhere today. How would you define it?
For me, innovation is simple. It is converting a product into something which has a market value. It also entails conversion of simple knowledge into wealth. I believe the 1.3 billion brains in India have the ability to conjure some of the greatest ideas. But how do we use those ideas, how do we nurture and convert them into products that have a market value and generate wealth for the country? We have reached a stage where we can no longer depend on imitating what others are doing. If India has to become a global innovation hub, we need to generate ideas. For this to happen, we need to create a movement of innovation in this country.

How can the Indian education system become more innovative?
Things have started happening, things are changing and we are here to change. We have decided to come up with a lot of activities. Colleges and educational institutions need to encourage creativity and encourage innovative practices, nurture good ideas and incubation.

Are you suggesting that it is time to move beyond textbooks for learning?
Yes, if you have seen the film 3 idiots, it is the bottom line and that explains many things. We should have moved beyond textbooks long ago. Textbooks have their own importance because they teach fundamentals. Only when you know the fundamentals you can apply them to ideas. Otherwise, idea doesn’t have any meaning.

Tell us something about the upcoming Hackathon in 2019
Hackathon has been happening for the last 10 years nationwide. For this year, we have sourced problem statements from Harvard University. As usual, these problem statements will be presented to students all over India. We expect all the colleges and universities to take part in the event.
Prof. Alok Prakash Mittal is the Member Secretary- All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). Prof. Mittal is a graduate from Madan Mohan Malviya Engineering College, Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh in Electrical Engineering and the University of Roorkee. He earned his doctorate from IIT, Delhi. During his academic career, he has guided a number of PhD students and has published more than 128 research papers in journals and conferences.

What is your take on innovation and what should technical institutions do to help students become innovative?
Innovation is ‘something new’. When you are asked to do something new, you need to set a goal to reach there. The challenge we face in education is the result of our dependence on textbooks. Well, we do require textbooks to learn, but it is time we went beyond the words printed in books.

Students should keep brushing up their knowledge and come up with ideas that will bring about the requisite change in the society. The focus of AICTE, the agency entrusted with overseeing technical institutions, is on the active participation of the institutions in taking new initiatives. Our idea behind motivating educational institutions to come forward is that we hope these technical institutions will also devise a syllabus that incorporates various aspects of technological innovations. However, before that is achieved, the thinking process should change. Students should be encouraged to bring about the change they want to see in the society and work towards achieving that. They will certainly find a way to do it, which will lead to new things.

Where are the lacunae, students or systems? What do you think should change?
I would say both because they are complimentary. The systems, of course. There are people to enhance and help the students to reach their goals. I don’t think it is impossible. It can be done, if we think and ponder over it, what might seem impossible may not be so in reality. In my view, what we need to do is to motivate our students. They need to be inspired and corrected when required so that they move in the right direction.

What is your impression of Jain (Deemed-to-be University)?
The institution is on the right path. The infrastructure and the facilities provided here are simply amazing. I hope the students use this opportunity and make their Alma Mater proud.

Dr. Ramesh Unnikrishnan is the youngest director that AICTE has ever seen. At present, he is serving as the Regional Director for both Western and Southern regions. He holds a PhD Degree and is constantly searching for new ways to improve technical education in India.

How can we improve engineering education in the country?
The present scenario of engineering education has created a dilemma. In the year 2006, when there were about 5000-6000 colleges, our policy makers felt that the Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) in India is very low. Lack of ample opportunities to study engineering was identified as a cause. Following this, policies were liberalised.

Today the total number of institutions just under the ambit of AICTE is 10, 327. In addition to it, there are 801 universities under UGC. Plus, we have IITs, NITs and other institutions of eminence. Each year, we open up about 35 lakhs of seats but the GER still remains 24 despite plenty of opportunities.

In your opinion, what is the reason behind the low GER?
We, officials of AICTE, feel that the media has somehow played a negative role as far as technical education is concerned. Every year, they take a keen interest in highlighting how many seats are lying vacant in each state. Many of these reports hardly have any basis in facts. Engineers play a significant role in making the world. As on date, we have only been able to fulfill 19 per cent of the total trained professionals required in the field of engineering.

How can regulatory bodies such as AICTE counter low GER?
People have a perception that bright students come only from either IITs or NITs. Other colleges do not have good students. We started the Smart India Hackathon in 2017 to counter this notion. We had about 28 ministries directly working with us. Ministries such as Aviation, Railway and Tourism gave us problems they normally face in their day to day operations. We opened these dilemmas to students from all the colleges and among the 28 ministries, 21 ministries are working with students to implement the brightest ideas that were pitched during the Hackathon.

What inspired you to become a part of AICTE?
Prior to joining AICTE, I was with the Govt. Engineering College in Munnar. I also acted as the Placement Officer. The college I worked for is located far away from the airport. Big companies always had reservations in coming for campus placements.

All these issues steered me towards AICTE. I felt that having some say in policies will help me to come up with solutions to some of the problems faced by engineering education today.

Any message for staff and students of the University?
If 100 students are completing their schooling, only 24 are going for further studies. The biggest wealth of any country is the educated youth. We are lucky as people who had the opportunity to pursue education. We should spread the luck and ensure that we educate others as well. My appeal to students and staff is that they should identify students who want to study and sponsor them. If each one of us takes this responsibility, education will become a reality for many.