Anil Sahasrabudhe at Idea Exchange: ‘The economy can’t run only on computer science or electronics, it requires civil and mechanical engineering, too’

AICTE chairman Anil Sahasrabudhe on why civil and mechanical engineering courses need to incorporate AI and a start-up/entrepreneurial spirit, and how industry involvement and curriculum upgrade are key to students’ employability. The session was moderated by Assistant Editor Alifiya Khan.

Alifiya Khan: For the last few years, mechanical and civil engineering seem to have taken a beating. The admission is very low with several colleges closing down. There are allegations that the syllabus is outdated. Is that why students are not taking admissions or getting jobs?

We’ve also been debating this issue internally and with the committee headed by BVR Mohan Reddy, who was chairman of the Board of Governors of IIT Hyderabad and executive chairman of Cyient Ltd. We have observed that since there is a large number of jobs in the domain of computer science and IT, most students gravitate towards these branches. However, we need people in other branches.

The Reddy-helmed committee has recommended not to start any new programmes in civil, mechanical and electrical courses but also to not allow them to close down completely. So, we’ve been allowing only a 50 per cent reduction in seats in them. But along with these branches of engineering, we are advocating that students should be allowed to take elective courses or minor degree programmes in emerging areas of technology like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), Machine Learning (ML), robotics, 3D printing, blockchain, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), so that their employability grows. And they are also required because the whole structure of the economy can’t run only on computer science or electronics. So, while I agree there have been fewer students taking admissions, we are motivating them; there’s a demand for these branches.

Alifiya Khan: On the allegations that the syllabus is not updated in line with the times or industry demands, are you considering any major revisions?

I don’t agree with this. We’ve been constantly revising and providing a model curriculum for universities to adopt. Now, I do agree that some universities haven’t adopted it, but four years ago, we consulted people from the industry, IITs, and some of the country’s best institutions for each discipline. This way we changed the curriculum. In some domains, changes happen gradually. Some courses may only have to be added as electives. But in mechanical, electronics and computer science, where the trajectory of change is fast, we can’t wait for long. We have undertaken a massive exercise to update their curricula this year.

Partha Biswas: How are you inculcating the start-up culture and the entrepreneurial spirit in the four-year engineering degree programme? For something as core as civil engineering, how do you make it start-up friendly?

We have a course on entrepreneurship development (from an innovative idea, product development to mentorship). Students from any discipline can take this course as an elective and get first-hand experience. Some institutions have made it mandatory. The AICTE and Ministry of Education’s Startup Innovation Policy have also permitted a student to take a break from studies, for a year during the four-year period, to try out an idea. If successful, you may continue on a part-time basis. If not, you can return and complete your studies. This provision never existed. We also have the Ministry’s Innovation Cell in AICTE and have got more than 3,200 innovation councils in colleges. We have already run four Smart India Hackathons.

Like medical education, where without interning one can’t practise, engineering graduates, too, without hands-on practical exposure to the industry, are just theoretical engineers. They may design but even that will be lopsided

Neeti Nigam: Are there fewer jobs for engineering students in India? Is that why they migrate to e-commerce for better salary packages?

You are partly correct. The number of jobs in the hardcore mechanical industry is going to be limited because of automation in these industries. But those with access to AI and ML will find useful jobs in these industries as well. It’s important to prepare them not only in the core discipline but also equip them with add-ons.

Neeti Nigam: Several mechanical engineering students complain that in countries like the US and the UK, locals get the ‘cream jobs’, not Indians. With the lack of right offers, in India or abroad, students are choosing streams other than mechanical and chemical.

Some of them can also start their own start-ups. I’m repeatedly saying, why should they depend on jobs abroad? The government is supporting not just startups but also Make in India. Take the defence sector that will require mechanical, civil, electrical and chemical engineering graduates. Why can’t we manufacture equipment here and create local jobs? Unless we reorient ourselves, our curriculum, and training, we won’t be self-reliant, not only in defence but in many other sectors as well.

The NEP 2020 is advocating that some of the best (global) universities set up campuses in India. So that there’s competition and collaboration between Indian and foreign universities. Then, fewer students will go abroad

Anuradha Mascarenhas: There isa need to train faculty. What isbeing done in the faculty development programme?

AICTE, in the last four years, started developing eight mandatory modules for new teachers. We’ve developed a full range of courses and each one of them is equal to nearly three credits or one semester. Young teachers, unless they complete eight modules, will not get regularised.

How to create lesson plans? How to make use of modern technology, not only the internet but also AI, VR and ML? How to embed them in a classroom? How to engage students who learn first-hand from the internet and come prepared to class? Our examination system has been based on rote-learning. We are never asked questions that test our understanding of the subject, critical thinking, analytical ability, data analytics and creativity. The entire problem-solving ability, innovation, creativity, and, in turn, start-ups, were fewer. Our teacher-training modules address all these aspects.

Ritika Chopra: As part of the scheme to offer engineering programmes in regional languages, 19 colleges signed up last year from an initial 14. When we look at the enrolment data, nine or 10 of them haven’t managed to fill even a single seat. How come?

We started last year, so naturally very few people were aware of it. We have to create more awareness. This year, 10 more colleges have joined. Today, about 29 colleges have asked for additional seats for the programme. Colleges in many states have started offering courses in their mother tongue. The circulars from the Madhya Pradesh and Bihar governments list 10 colleges where institutions running programmes in English were asked to conduct them in Hindi.

The availability of textbooks in these languages was a very significant step. Our first target was to start publishing books in six languages for first-year students. Now, we are on to second-year books and expanding translated books to 12 languages. More takers will come in a couple of years. Second, engineering students mostlypursue instruction in English. Unless these courses are conducted in regional languages at the local level, there will be fewer students opting for highereducation. There’s a push for it in therural areas.

Alifiya Khan: Over the last two years, a lot of people have been pursuing management degrees online. Reputed AICTE-approved institutes and ed-tech companies are offering these. Are their standards and content being vetted?

First, both the AICTE and UGC have sent out circulars and advertisements that ed-tech companies have their own role in providing inputs for online education, whereas approved institutions have a major role, and that distinction has been made very clear. It is the educational institution which has to decide the curriculum, content, and the delivery of the course. But the nature of delivery, how it can be made more interesting in an online platform vis-à-vis the classroom is where the ed-tech companies come in. Not every institution may be able to develop a robust learning-management system or a website to provide this support by making use of newer technologies such as AI, VR, and ML. Ed-tech companies play a big role in embedding these technologies in the learning process.

Ritu Sharma: For the last seven years, more than 50 per cent of the seats in private institutes have been vacant. Despite the huge mismatch between demand and supply, why are new private institutes being approved and opened every year?

For the last three years, we’ve not allowed any new engineering college to be set up by any private institution. As I said, the Prof. Reddy Committee categorically stated that no new engineering college should be set up except in disadvantaged districts. These were earlier called backward districts, but today, our Prime Minister calls them aspirational districts, where an institution set up by the state government would reach out to unserved students. That’s why we allowed only such colleges. This year, two more types of educational institutions have been allowed. One is the industry-backed educational programme, which will naturally be of high quality. Another is about 50 or 100-year-old institutions, which do not have an engineering programme but have more than 10,000 students in otherprogrammes. If they want to become a multidisciplinary institution oruniversity, engineering is one of the important domains.

Sheetal Banchariya: We’ve been hearing a lot about Atmanirbhar Bharat and startups. But according to the IBM Institute and Oxford Economics research, more than 90 per of cent Indian start-ups fail. So, they don’t really appear to be a viable option but just another burden. Are we shying away from the fact that there are fewer opportunities for start-ups to flourish?

There is no country in the world where more than five to six per cent of the startups fully succeed. Many of them either close down or sell out to bigger companies. Most countries have similar percentages, so don’t go by that. Second, despite the economic downturn during the two pandemic years, the number of unicorns from India has been staggering. We had 42 unicorns last year. This year, start-ups, whether in the health, ed-tech or agricultural sectors, have already kickstarted their run.

Sourav Roy Barman: The recent National Achievement Survey report showed how learning levels have taken a hit during the pandemic due to long school closures and the digital gap. Your own report shows that even in engineering education, there are learning gaps, particularly among first-year students, especially in mathematics. Will the AICTE instruct all technical institutes to go through the Parakh findings and take corrective action?

We want additional material to be provided to these (engineering) students, maybe extra classes in the evening/weekends, otherwise the learning in the next year will also get affected. Many states have their own programmes at the school level. We have developed our portal Vidyanjali along with Parakh where volunteerism will be advocated. Any person, who is an expert in a particular subject, can help teachers at a nearby school/college and augment resources to impart lessons. It can even be in the form of psychological support. Several people have come on board. Such a system will help bridge the gap in six months to a year.

Alifiya Khan: There’s a huge proportion of Indian students at Ivy League universities or higher-education institutions abroad who are pursuing research or PG courses in ME and MTech. Why don’t they do the same here? How will AICTE change the narrative?

AICTE, the Ministries of Education and External Affairs have been talking about a ‘Study in India’ programme to not only stop brain drain but also to attract foreign students. Unless that academic culture is created, it’s not very easy to hold on to talent. That’s why all these initiatives, in terms of building support systems, will help in a big way. When our institutions start figuring in global rankings, featuring in the top 200-300 bracket and slowly inching towards the best-100 club, then they would automatically get traction.

The new National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) is advocating that some of the best universities set up campuses in India itself. So there is a competition and also collaboration which will happen between Indian and foreign universities. Then, maybe, fewer students will go abroad. They will start studying here and get foreign degrees at their doorstep at a lower expenditure. Today, if 10 students migrate abroad, only one student returns. How can this ratio be reversed? It will require a lot of effort.

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Alifiya Khan: We rejoice when Indian universities appear in the 500-600 rank category of the QS World University and Times Higher Education rankings. The fact is, we need to do much better…

First, many of the parameters the ranking agencies consider are not favourable to us at all. For example, they talk about diversity, which quantifies the number of foreign faculty and students in that institution. Look at the diversity in many of our Indian institutions. We have students from 28-odd states and six Union territories, with different languages and cultures. Is that not diversity?

We also have reservations to enable students from Scheduled Castes and Tribes as well as those with disabilities. The number of girl students is increasing. Third, there’s a huge perception score that is based on non-transparent processes. I think there are many imponderables, which are happening in the world rankings. So we should not be too worried about where we stand, but we have been doing pretty well. If you take one important parameter, research, which is directly visible, our Indian Institute of Science (IISc, Bengaluru) is No.1 in the world in terms of citation. IIT Guwahati, a comparatively new institution, also stood very well on that count. In terms of innovation, we were at the 81st position just about five years ago. Today, in innovation rankings, we are 46th.

Pallavi Smart: The research work in the engineering sector is restricted to the Institutes of Eminence. Is the AICTE doing something to encourage research in individual affiliated engineering colleges as well?

Innovation and research go hand in hand. Recently, I went through the Web of Science and the entire analysis of the research publications from India from three years ago until now. We have been constantly improving our contribution to the world of research. Out of the total research output in India, about 24 per cent comes from top-tier institutions like NITs and IITs, 23 per cent comes from our labs — government agencies, non-academic/university research labs, and the remaining 53 per cent comes from ordinary colleges and universities, including AICTE-approved colleges.

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