Sunday, August 16, 2015

Why Engineers are Crowding Out Others in Exams, and What We Can Do About It

India needs many, many more industrial jobs and a sturdy research infrastructure to absorb the glut of engineers

IIT Kharagpur. Credit: seaview99/Flickr, CC 2.0
IIT Kharagpur. Credit: seaview99/Flickr, CC 2.0
The deep crisis in our higher education system has been highlighted in recent columns by Amartya SenPratap Bhanu Mehta and Niraja Jayal. Our tendency to confuse cause and effect, reform and change, education and employability, skills and knowledge, is so great that we needed their illumination to clear the fog of our incomprehension. Both the crisis and misdiagnosis is so stark that even if we reach the right answers, it is often by asking the wrong questions.
Irrespective of the scale and magnitude of government interference in our top institutions like the IITs, IIMs, Delhi University and Nalanda University, the issue hardly agitates public opinion beyond these campuses and, perhaps, the India International Centre. The absence of agitation is conspicuous in the light of India’s rising gross enrolment ratio.
Aspiring for mobility, not knowledge
This wider apathy is a symptom of the real tragedy of higher education in India – the tragedy of instrumentalisation. Entry into top colleges and universities has become a ticket to economic mobility. Lower rung colleges and universities are merely there to grant social legitimacy via a degree. This may be a reckless generalisation but the fact is that while IIT and IIM graduates are able to command eight-figure salaries, our not-so-remarkable colleges have declined to the point that they have become poor substitutes for programs like ‘Skill India’. Whether we admit it or not, our universities are no longer an abode for creating and disseminating knowledge.
Obsession with the ‘aspirational India’ story has certainly perverted the traditional arena of knowledge creation and dissemination. This perversion is political but governments cannot be held solely responsible. The interference of the government is merely a manifestation of the lack of demand for autonomous knowledge-creating educational institutions. The upper middle class who could have created this demand pressure exercised easy exit options by sending their children abroad.
The aspirational India story is more about getting a better job and lifestyle and less about knowledge. It is not just the institutions that help achieve economic and social mobility which are affected, but also examinations like the one to select civil servants. Remember the protests over the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) conducting an aptitude test for civil services aspirants? It has finally been decided that the Civil Services Aptitude Test, or CSAT, will just be held for qualificatory purposes and that its score, beyond the qualification stage, will not make any difference. The argument of the protesters, besides the language controversy, was that the CSAT favoured students from engineering and other technical backgrounds.
Last  month came the news that the IIMs too have decided to change the format of their CAT (Common Admission Test) to add descriptive questions in addition to multiple-choice format questions. The reason is to introduce diversity, because the previous format rendered itself to easy exploitation by engineers.
March of engineers
The CSAT and CAT issues seem pretty similar, but the question they should prompt us to ask is not why all our exams favour engineering students but why India produces so many engineers despite the shortfall in engineering jobs. With a thin manufacturing sector spread across product types that values skilled low wage workers more than educated professionals demanding high salaries, the CAT and UPSC application basket is flooded with engineering applicants. The quality of research infrastructure being what it is, and with the added burden of middling salaries, few engineers opt to pursue careers in R&D. Those who do migrate overseas.
This means India’s surplus output of engineers ends up looking for non-engineering, crowding out non-engineers in the process.
The data is clear. The composition of successful Civil Services (Mains) candidates has indeed changed with the percentage of engineers increasing from 40.2% in 2010 to 45.9% in 2011 following the introduction of CSAT. While the CSAT appears to have helped engineers, the fact is their proportion had been steadily rising even before the aptitude test was introduced. The percentage of engineers  among the those who successfully took the Mains exam went from 24.3% in 2004 to 40.2% in 2010. The share of candidates with a Humanities background during the same period  decreased from 50.1% to 37.1%. Clearly, the introduction of CSAT in 2011 had little to do with the increasing number of engineers qualifying for the civil services. Compared to the UPSC, the dominance of engineering candidates in the IIMs is well-nigh complete. Among those selected for IIMs at Ahmadabad, Bangalore, Calcutta, Lucknow, Indore and Kozhikode in 2013, engineers comprised 83 to 95 per cent of the total intake.
As the data suggests, changes in the CAT are needed to ensure greater diversity of intake since the existing exam  places too much emphasis on analytical reasoning and too little on the structure of expression. The civil services exam, on the other hand, was not analytical enough before CSAT was introduced in 2011. CSAT challenged the status quo and some applicants chose to hit the streets over being made to work on their analytical skills. One cannot entirely blame the protestors though, for they have been educated in a way that – in Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s words – “will deprive them of opportunities in so many professions that they think of the UPSC as a life or death issue.”
Behind the engineering obsession
To conclude, let me try to address the high demand for engineering education even when the supply of jobs in the domain is so low. According to estimates, we train more engineers than the United States and China combined. The student intake in engineering colleges has more than trebled between 2006-07 and 2012-13.
One of the reasons for this is undoubtedly the instrumentalisation of higher education. A degree in engineering unlocks social legitimacy, at a very minimum, and also opens up various other opportunities like CAT, UPSC and now entrepreneurship. Just take a note of the number of start-ups that are getting funded by VCs and how many of their founders are engineers, particularly from the IITs. And further how many of these IIT engineers had been placed in investment banks and management consultancies from their respective campuses.
The second reason is the kind of decisions we expect a secondary school student to make when she is clearly not mature enough to do so. The hyper-competitive nature of entry into the top engineering and medical colleges—medical students are only second to engineers in their rising success in UPSC civil services exams—means that the earlier the students and parents arrive at a career decision, the better it is from a preparation point of view. Some coaching institutes start preparing kids for IITs from right after their primary education. A break for a year or two during secondary and higher secondary education is considered taboo.
If we are serious about boosting diversity among our civil servants and management graduates, we should, besides making the examination system more amenable to a diverse section of students, also encourage non-engineers to work hard on their analytical skills. Needless to say, India needs many, many more jobs and a sturdy research infrastructure to absorb the glut of engineers. This will, in turn, alleviate some demand-side pressure from the civil services and management entrance examinations, thus helping achieve the goals of diversification.
As far as our higher education institutions are concerned, it is imperative for ‘knowledge’ as an instrument and an objective to regain primacy. A nation creating knowledge has a better chance of sustaining high rates of growth for long periods of time than a nation with an education system that boasts of a handful of colleges with guaranteed 100% placement while the rest struggle to even create an ecosystem of learning.

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