India produces more than 1.5 million engineers every year but less than 10% of these graduates are actually employable. Engineering education in the United States, on the other hand, is considered one of the best education systems in the world — fostering innovation, entrepreneurship and state-of-the-art research. As someone who has lived through both of these highly distinct systems, I felt the need to share the differences that I have observed among them.
To give you some context, I completed my undergraduate studies in engineering from University of Mumbai, India and then went over to complete my graduate education from University of Maryland, USA.
I do not mean to undermine the education and the values that I learned from my teachers in India but I intend to get the word out to the policy makers and educationalists who might be interested in getting a perspective. I believe there are many things that engineering schools in India can start doing today, without having to wait for any government funding or a policy change and have a significant impact on the quality of education they deliver. As quoted in one of my favorite Bollywood movies:
“No system is perfect, someone needs to make it perfect.”
Following are the areas where engineering schools in the US generally do a far better job compared to their Indian counterparts:
1. Emphasis on the learning outcomes and not the syllabus
Engineering education in India seems to be focused on completion of a well-defined set of checklists, irrespective of what students learn or gain from it. For every course/lab, a student follows more or less the same path. Moreover, there have been many efforts to standardize coursework across different schools. With the standardization of coursework:
- Teachers tend to loose creativity and drive in their teaching
- Updating syllabus across different schools takes forever resulting in a huge gap between what is taught in schools and the skill-set that industry expects.
This isn’t the case for most engineering schools in the US. Teachers decide on the curriculum with a general guideline from their department. A “Data Structures” course from one professor might be completely different from another professor teaching the same course in the next section. It is also common for teachers to propose an entirely different course/subject. You could imagine, the difference in passion a teacher would have while teaching a course that they have designed compared to a curriculum that University forces them to follow.
2. Flexible coursework
Departments at most engineering schools in India require all students to complete more or less the same set of courses towards their graduation. Even though University curriculum might have a few electives, most departments do not have enough teachers who are able to teach these electives. Many schools in India are making significant efforts to increase the number of electives they offer but there is still a need for more flexibility.
With technology evolving every day, students should get a chance to explore a wide range of subjects in their undergraduate studies which will allow them to decide their career path. At my graduate school in the US, besides having multiple electives, I was also able to take a few courses from outside of my department and this has opened several new possibilities for me.
3. Plagiarism is taken seriouslyI feel the issue of plagiarism is one of the most underrated problems of engineering education in India. The way it works at most engineering schools is that — one or two people in the class complete an assignment or a lab manual and the rest 60 students bluntly copy from it. This isn’t true for the final examinations though. Most of these assignments where students copy from each other are not graded but are mandatory to complete. Again, there is more importance given to a structured completion of few journals and assignments rather than focusing on the learning outcomes. Most of my friends would say in frustration “Why? the heck are we writing all this (copying 200–400 pages of lab manuals and assignments)” but no one did anything about it. I never did anything about it! I wish I did …
This is definitely not the case in the US where plagiarism can have serious consequences. I have seen people getting detained and in some cases expelled from the University. Working independently on assignments and homework results in a continuous learning process throughout the semester and encourages curiosity and innovative thinking.
The IT industry in India, which once grew by as much as 30%, has slowed down to a 5.3% growth rate at present. According to a report, less than 5% of software engineers who graduate are employable.
4. Grades are not made public:At engineering schools in India, often teachers display the grades on a “Noticeboard” or read out the grades in front of the whole class. This has a tremendous impact on the psychology of a student. One must realize that examination grades are a major source of feedback that students receive at their school. Making them public only adds to the frustration of not doing well in an exam.
I do not know of any school in the US which does this. Grades are strictly private and it is unusual for your not-so-close friends to be curious about them.
5. You do not Memorize a lot of textI remember at my engineering school in India, most of my time and efforts went into memorizing stuff that I would forget anyways 2 days after the exam. As an Electronics and Communication engineer, I was supposed to memorize — color codes of resistors, standard values of electronic components, block diagrams for TV’s, radios, mobile phones, and what not…. If someone were to ask me any of those things right now, I would obviously look up on the internet. I am not against studying and knowing all those concepts but it makes no sense to memorize the entire textbook.
At my engineering schools in the US, this wasn’t the case. Some of my courses had open-book exams, some allowed us to bring look-up tables while others allowed us to bring copies of presentations that were used during the class. All this meant, my focus was towards getting the concepts right and not towards memorizing the textbook.
6. Having your food in class is not a bad thing!I remember walking out from a class at my undergraduate school because I was hungry and the teacher was already way over the lecture time. Having your food in class is considered disrespectful and indiscipline. Sorry! But I don’t think so. Most engineering schools in India have back-to-back classes for around 6–8 hours with only one break in between. I think it’s normal for a student to get hungry during such long hours and it is unfair for a school to starve its students.
If this was a University class in the US, I could have simply opened my lunch box and had my lunch!
7. Continuous EvaluationExams at my engineering school in India were definitely more stressful because the final exams were worth 80–90% of my grades and not doing well at any one of them would have serious consequences. The homework and mid-semester exams did not carry enough grade points and thus most students do not take them seriously. Not doing well at any of these exams has a lasting effect. I have seen students appearing for 8–10 courses in one semester because they couldn’t do well in the previous semester.
Most courses at my graduate school had enough points allotted to the home works and mid-semester exams. Some courses did not even have a final exam and we just had a project or a presentation. This meant students do not have to memorize a vast amount of literature before the final semester exam. This also reduces stress and encourages experimentation.
8. Attendance is Not CompulsoryMost engineering schools in India mandate that students attend a minimum number of lectures/labs. Many engineering schools do not allow students to appear for exams if they do not meet certain attendance requirement! This forces students to be present in the class even if they don't see any value in attending. I feel Universities should let students decide what form of learning works best for them and not dictate what students do with their time.
At my graduate school in the US none of my classes had any attendance requirements. But most students attended all the classes because it was not possible to perform well in that course without being present in the class (unless the course had video lectures available).
9. Integrated learning and innovation:A professor at my graduate school once mentioned –
“The greatest strength of Engineering education in the US is that — here the creation and decimation of knowledge happens simultaneously.”
Most professors at my grad school were in-charge of labs which worked on state-of-the-art R&D projects often funded by the government or private companies. Industries generally look towards academia for emerging trends in technology and partnering with universities often helps them to stay ahead of the curve and gives them a competitive edge.
10. Better IT InfrastructureIn a country like India, where the Prime Minister asks people to go “Digital”, most engineering colleges require their students to wait in a queue for hours to pay tuition fees, submit hard copies of their examination forms and collect the so-called “Hall ticket” before going to exams. I understand that one cannot change the infrastructure overnight but it is high time for our engineering schools to start modernizing.
Universities in the US highly rely on technology to be more efficient. Use of course management systems (CMS/LMS), video lectures, use of a single student ID for multiple purposes such as library checkout, tuition payments, dining payments, event tickets etc., ensures that students are more focused on learning and are not wasting time in taking care of other things.
There are obviously some downsides to the engineering education system in the US as well. Most notably — The cost of education. On an average, a student pays around 30,000 USD/year of tuition at an engineering school in the US compared to 2000 USD/year in India. American students owe in excess of 1.5 Trillion USD in student loans and most students would end up paying this loan for several years after they graduate.
Do you think that we are doing enough on our part to improve engineering education in India? Are there a few things that I missed out on? Let me know in the comments.