Thursday, March 16, 2006

Do we need so many engineering colleges? Part I

I was a participant in a live talk show on this topic last week. This event was held as a part of a college festival and I was one of the four speakers. The format was loosely a copy of the big fight - NDTV. It was great fun and it actually turned out to be more interesting and enlightening then I initially expected. I wish to collatet the thoughts from the show in three parts. Part one & two presents the two sides of the opinion. The third compiles the interactive discussions of speakers, host and the audience. Here goes the part one.

This is what I started with

Indore currently has 15 engineering colleges, 61 is the number all over MP. Just Indore accounts for addition of more than 4500 engineers every year. Under such circumstances its timely to ask whether we need more of such colleges.

Demographic Shift
World is under going a demographic shift that has a tremendous opportunity for India.
Average age of India currently is 23 years while that of the rest of the world is 35+years (data from a seminar by noted economist Amanullah Khan) - after some extrapolation and factoring in life expectancy figures and improved medical facilities, by the year 2050 average age of India would be 38 while that of Europe and the USA will be 55+ years.

Now an age of 25 to 55 is considered working age. This means that majority of the population of India in the coming decades would be in the working age while there will be increasingly a shortage of people in the working age in the currently developed world. Here lies a great potential for India to become the source of human capital for the rest of the wold. Even China does not compete with us on this score as it will also be an old country like the rest of the world.

However the picture is not all that rosy. India suffers from huge underemployment (not unemployment). Picture this - service sector accounts for 52% of Indian GDP while it employs only 26% of our work force. Industry (manufacturing) accounts for 21% of our GDP while it employs 18% of our work force. The worry therefore is that our farm sector (agriculture) which contributes to the extent of 27% of the GDP employs a whooping 56% of our work force. This means that a large numbers of them are under employed (because there are five people in a family of farmers - all of them work on the same farm - although the work requires only two-three. Thus technically they are employed but are doing and hence earning less per person).

More Colleges would help
Thats why, despite so many people in our country, companies find it hard to get trained skilled manpower. The need of the hour thus is to train this vast unskilled manpower. Not just engineering colleges, we need as many colleges as possible in all disciplines. However we definitely need more engineering colleges because thats where we are generating maximum employment in the organised sector.

Some more data : India has 40 million registered unemployed - obviously they are not engineers. Of a total of 400 million workforce a miniscule 27 million only are in the organised sector.

Other Thoughts
There were three other speakers two of them disagreed with me and one agreed. Let me start with the speaker who agreed with me; An eminent academician director of a leading engineering college in my city

Poor Management
He made a simple & interesting point. According to him the question "do we need so many engineering colleges?" is incomplete. On this question he was firmly of the belief that yes more are needed. He however added that what we need are better managements in these colleges.

In his view the argument that large quantity of colleges result into poor quality education misses the point that the quality of education is poor because of poor management. Adding to my statistics he points out that 11 more engineering colleges are about to open in Indore. One of them could be Dhiru Bhai Ambani institute of technology. He comments that going by their reputation they will be a good engineering college, and thats because there is very little to argue against the fact that college will have a far superior management.

Anyways he feels that even with a poor management we are better off with more engineering colleges. He raises a blunt question - if not engineering what will they do? Are they better off doing a B. Com. which would get them a career? In his view at least engineering education develops one's ability to analyse. This comes in very handy later even in a non-engineering career.

Core Engineering Branches Suffering
He lamented one thing however. The larger number has resulted into dilution of the work profile of an engineer. He says that Engineers are not doing an engineer's job anymore. Most of these engineers are getting selectd in call centers which does not require core technical engineering knowledge. Also the boom of jobs are largely from the IT, BPO related industries while core engineering streams (read civil, mechanical, electrical) are suffering.