Addressing the quality of engineering education

M Rokonuzzaman | Published: October 20, 2018 22:01:58 | Updated: October 26, 2018 21:30:00

Although the number is not exactly known, density of unemployed engineering graduates has been increasing across South Asia.  According to a media report (Times of India), nearly 80 per cent of engineering graduates in India are not employable. After borrowing money they graduate with engineering degrees only to find themselves on the street looking for jobs. Being exhausted, many of them opt for jobs for which engineering degrees are not relevant. Such reality is often raising the question whether we are producing worthless degrees and jobless graduates. The basic question is why are engineering graduates not remaining unemployed?  Where is the mismatch?

To start with the basic question, what do engineers do? Well, we all know a set of answers.  They design products, build and test these products, design plants in which those products are made, design systems that ensure quality and efficiency of the manufacturing process, analyse systems to evaluate their performance, develop software to control systems, and add innovative features to improve the performance of existing products. To be very good at it, they apply the principles of science and mathematics to develop economical solutions to technical problems. For this reason, we give a heavy dose of emphasis on teaching them mathematics, physics, design techniques, system science, as well as all kinds of modern technologies. To augment their theoretical knowledge, we also invest in building laboratories with modern equipment. After delivering such knowledge and skill, why cannot we succeed in building high caliber engineers? Why are we observing an increasing number of unemployed engineers? Why are we observing that fresh engineering graduates in certain developing countries, like Bangladesh, India or Pakistan, are looking for jobs having salary similar to high school dropouts working as drivers?

The answer often attributed to this is deficiency in quality. If we increase their quality by many folds in the above areas, will the situation change? Does it mean that we should keep honing their knowledge and skill in how to make computer programmes, how to design, how to solve math and how to explain working principles of advanced technologies and machines? If we keep doing it, will the job and salary issues of engineering graduates disappear?  Another issue could be that supply is more than the demand. But the density of engineering graduates in these countries is far lower than that of many advanced countries. For example, according to the Time magazine, the UK with 66 million population produces 46,000 engineering graduates per year. But the industry demands 87,000 fresh graduates, creating a call that engineering graduates need to double by 2020.  On the other hand, India accelerated engineering graduate production reaching a whooping 1.5 million per year. And only 20 per cent of them are employable. Comparison to UK's absorption capacity of 1320 engineering graduates per 1 million population, India's economy can only absorb 224 graduates per 1 million population-which is almost 6 times lower than the UK. Why is there such a big disparity between economies in absorbing engineering graduates in productive activities?  But the scenario should have been the opposite. India's economy at a relatively early stage of growth should have demanded more engineering graduates than the matured economy of the UK. 

In an economy, engineers have three roles to play. The first one is to be an in-house employee of technology using companies and organisations. Working with engineering contracting firms whether delivering power plants, software applications or installing mobile based stations is the second type of job.  The third one is to work as an innovator in engineering startups or firms engaged in innovating and rolling out technology goods and services.

To work as an in-house employee, the competence need is to know science and technology and apply them in a cost-effective manner. The focus in producing engineering graduates fit for this job is on science, math, and technology, having a popular name: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). So far, engineering institutions in South Asia starting from Indian Institute of Technology to Engineering Universities to regional engineering colleges are busy in producing graduates with STEM competence. The higher the STEM competence, the better the quality of engineering graduates. Unfortunately, in-house employment for engineering graduates is not increasing. In certain cases, the number is falling. You need a decreasing number of engineers than ever before to supervise and operate engineering establishments-- whether power plants, telephone exchange, data centres or large computer networks. Higher level automation is taking over the role of in-house engineers. Moreover, instead of using in-house engineers to design and build technical solutions, organisations are preferring to contract out projects outside or procuring easy-to-install modular solutions.

The second category of engineering jobs is to work as contractors. To succeed in the contracting profession, engineers need to have capabilities in addition to STEM. They need to know how to estimate, how to plan a project, how to manage diverse human resources, how to negotiate, how to optimise resource allocation, and how to manage risk among many other skills to succeed in delivering sustainable and profit making projects. Often, our engineering graduates are not fit to work as contractors. Moreover, local engineering firms need to compete with global firms to secure contracts. Due to the lack of proven competence and strategic vision, many local contracting firms are losing big contracts to engineering firms of advanced countries. Moreover, foreign debt-driven development projects are also limiting local firms to secure projects. In one hand, local firms are failing to get adequate contracting assignments, and on the other hand, engineering graduates of south Asian countries are not technically as well as culturally fit for contracting jobs. 

Innovation, no doubt, takes the centre stage of many engineering jobs, often perceived to be the most lucrative among all. But to succeed in innovation, engineering graduates must have the capability, which is far more than STEM or project management. Innovators need to be fully aware of the technology dynamics, and evolving unmet requirements of target clients, which could be met with the technology of tomorrow.  They need to take a series of rational decisions in the midst of uncertainties in conceiving product idea and turning it into profitable innovation. Diverse capabilities starting from technology prediction, assessing team's capability and learning ability, likely clients' response towards conceived product idea, likely response of competition once the product shows up, managing risk capital, and dealing with policy and regulatory issues are among many vital issues to deal with to turn investment into revenue.  Often this set of skill is far different from STEM, and may be far more complex as well.

It appears that south Asian economies are designed to have engineers to work as  in-house employees. Social culture and academic biases are also producing graduates with STEM capacity to be an in-house employee. But in-house job opportunity for engineering is failing to keep up with the growth of fresh graduates. On the other hand, engineering contracting firms are not rapidly growing, partly due to skill mismatch and unfavourable public policies. Though there has been an inspirational response to start-ups, they are not growing as a big opportunity for engineering graduates due to competence as well as cultural mismatch. As a result, South Asian economies can absorb far less engineering graduates than advanced economies like the UK. Like in the past, giving emphasis on STEM is not going to solve the issue of competence of engineering graduates.  Rather we should address diverse issues starting from public policies to cultural biases to curricula to address the issue. 

M Rokonuzzaman Ph.D is academic, researcher and activist on Technology, Innovation and Policy.

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