Engineering Grads Struggle for Jobs Not Because They Don't Know the Latest Stuff

With programming as an example, the problem is not that our graduates don't know the latest language but that our graduates don't know any language.

We have been talking about poor quality of our graduates for a few decades. But things seem to be going from bad to worse. Why?

Is quality education too expensive and a poor country like ours cannot put enough resources into it? To a small extent, yes. To be in the same league as top 500 in the world is expensive, but to make the graduates employable is not so expensive.

Is the issue of quality education too complex and there are no easy answers? Well, again, it is complex if we want to be the best in the world, but making the graduates employable is not so complex.

So, what is it? The real issue is that we haven’t identified the real problem – or perhaps we don’t wish to. When we talk about our graduates, we keep talking about them being unemployed because they don’t learn the latest that industry is using, that the curriculum is outdated, that we don’t get industry folks to come and teach or tell the faculty what to teach. That they don’t learn soft skills. And to justify this line of argument, one can show examples where a college started teaching something which was immediately needed in the industry and had a few soft skill workshops before the placement season, and the number of students getting jobs improved.

No one asks the question that if indeed those few skills were the main problem in employment, then how come those things help only a few thousands and several lakhs are still unemployable?

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To just pick up one skill – programming – as an example, the problem is not that our graduates do not know the latest programming language (the one which is more heavily used in industry today), but that our graduates do not know any programming language. Most of our graduates cannot qualify GATE without dedicated coaching for months. Most of our graduates cannot write even a pseudo-code for any simple algorithm (say, sorting) or for any simple data structure (say, insert in a binary search tree).

If you believe that the problem is only the lack of knowledge of the latest industry stuff, you will do what we have been doing for decades, and be happy that you have helped a few students. But if you believe that the problem is that our graduates know nothing, you can actually do things that would improve the quality of education significantly.

I have talked to a lot of technical folks in industry who would tell me that if their problem is not that the recruits do not know the latest, it is that they can’t learn the latest in a small period of time. That the training periods are too long and even after that, they haven’t picked up as many skills as industry people would desire. If they knew, for example, a couple of programming languages well, they can pick up the next programming language very soon. So indeed, even the enlightened folks in industry would agree that the problem is not lack of latest knowledge but lack of any knowledge.

In terms of pedagogy, the problem is easy to solve, at least to the extent of bringing the students to the level of being employable, but only if there is a will to solve. Why do computer science graduates not have programming skills when they are supposed to have had two full courses doing just programming, and at least 10 other courses in which they would have done programming projects? Because, no one insisted that they do those things and gave them marks anyway in all courses in all four years. And the students were not self motivated to learn on their own.

At least in computer science, you don’t need great teachers to reach the level of being employable. Of course, great teachers can motivate you to do better than just being employable. There are enough online resources to learn. If the teacher can just give assignments (any book would have a number of them) and make sure that students do them honestly, submit them and they are graded honestly, the problem is solved. It is really that trivial. (Again, I am only looking at them becoming employable in the current market scenario, and not competing with the best in the world, for which a lot more will need to be done.)

But trivial things are sometimes hard to do. Our affiliated colleges have no incentive to do this, and most of our higher education happens in affiliated colleges. If one college starts getting strict with internal marks, their students will have poor ranks in the university results since other colleges will continue to give liberal marks. And there will be student protests and they will attract fewer students next year.

Even universities do not have incentives to do these things. In a government university, you can’t penalise an instructor who does not want to work. In a private university, if the failure rates go up, as they will in the beginning, there will be market pressure on them. In fact, our accreditation bodies will see this as negative – that a number of students are having backlogs.

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So our regulatory bodies take an easy way out. Keep blaming the university for poor curriculum. Keep blaming industry for not offering enough internships. Keep blaming schools for not preparing them with adequate soft skills. Sympathise with colleges because there is overall shortage of faculty and resources. But never admit that the problem is within our colleges and universities, and never take action against them for low quality education.

Frankly, if the quality is poor for whatever reason, shouldn’t it be reflected in denial of accreditation to a large number of institutions and/or programmes every year?

All this is not to say that there should not be any industry interaction with engineering education. But the real benefits come from internships, both summer internships and semester internships, or part-time jobs. Outside India, it is common for students to take on internships/jobs. Would Indian students be interested in graduating in five years? And, by the way, if I were to encourage my students to do industry jobs during the B. Tech., both accreditation bodies and ranking bodies would not like it. They only want industry to control my curriculum and teach my students the latest stuff.

In summary, the problem in Indian academia is not lack of industry interaction. The problem is that there appears to be no incentive for any honest evaluation of any learning outcome. Lack of quality faculty ensures that students don’t get motivated to learn. So students will learn only if it improves grades, but that will not happen because there is no honest evaluation.

Dheeraj Sanghi is director of the Punjab Engineering College (PEC), Chandigarh. This article was originally published on the author’s blog and has been republished here with permission.