Professional courses in India, especially in the science discipline, like engineering and medicine have long held the sway of students and their parents alike. The main reasons for the popularity that these courses enjoy in India are due to the employment prospects that may follow after graduating with engineering or a medical degree, and also because of the perceived intellectual superiority and rigour of such degrees over others in the fields of pure sciences, humanities and commerce. However, the actual employment prospects of graduates in these two disciplines paint a starker picture. Moreover, there is an apparent bias in the Indian education system where courses in other disciplines are given a secondary priority by the government, due to the focus on science institutions and the society, which has the perception that opting for courses other than engineering and medicine is a poor career choice. India, as a newly industrialized economy, must cater to all sectors of economic growth and needs professionals in all fields. Succeeding paragraphs will illustrate the problems that inequitable development in different educational fields brings and the need for Indian institutions to impart world-class education in diverse fields.
A whopping 60% of India’s engineering graduates remain unemployed every year according to the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) which is the supervisory and accrediting body for technical and management courses in India. Moreover, the exponential demand for engineering courses has ensured that many institutions without the required faculty, infrastructure and accreditation thrive across the country as evidenced by the AICTE which stated that only 15% of the engineering programmes are accredited by it. The lack of quality engineering education contributes to the eventual unemployment of graduates, but such concerns are almost always overshadowed by splendid academic and employment-based performance of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the National Institutes of Technology (NITs), despite the fact that the IITs and NITs educate only a fraction of India’s engineers. A similar situation can be outlined for medical professionals in India. The Indian Medical Association (IMA) disclosed that up to two lakh doctors in India are unemployed because of the emergence of a super-speciality healthcare system which requires the doctors to possess advanced degrees. The problem seems to be caused by the existing disparity between the number of undergraduate and postgraduate medical seats. There are around 95,176 undergraduate medical seats (MBBS and BDS) and around 28,715 postgraduate medical seats (MD and diplomas). It is obvious from the figures that only around 30% of qualified medical doctors may proceed to obtain postgraduate qualifications, while the remaining 70% are short of avenues for furthering their technical education, thereby reducing their employability. Having evaluated the employment prospects of engineers and doctors, it may be concluded that despite the prestige and the hundreds of crores of disproportionate investment from the government, the reality of the Indian engineering and medical courses leave much to be desired because of such investments being concentrated on few institutions at the national level.
Engineering as a profession in India commands the prestige it does because of its colonial roots where Indian engineers in the service of the British Raj were comparatively well-off and better-positioned than their non-engineering peers. In the immediate aftermath of the Indian independence, Sir M. Visvesvaraya, regarded as the father of engineering in India, advised Prime Minister Nehru to prioritize the development of the infrastructure of the nation – a key component of the nation-building process. Such connotations have stuck and this profession is still regarded as a key tenet in nation-building. The IITs and NITs were given greater priority in the few decades immediately succeeding India’s independence because of the policies of the government at that time. As the country was built with a socialist outlook, there was a greater need for harnessing the human capital in a nation which had high levels of illiteracy and was lacking in industrial development. A shift from a primarily agriculture-based economy to an industrial one was pivotal in ensuring that the nation could raise millions out of poverty. The lack of an entrepreneurial outlook and the consequent lack of private sector companies (except for the Tatas), coupled with the notoriously unfavourable License Raj policies of the government meant that most of the graduates from IITs and IIMs found themselves working in public sector companies and a small proportion of them emigrating overseas. The medical field, as always, was essential in ensuring that the new nation was healthy and did not succumb to pandemics and outbreaks of diseases which were relatively common at that time. Consequently, there was little employment available for people outside the professional science fields, except for lawyers and chartered accountants. Graduates from other disciplines had no other option but to seek low-paying employment. But, the globalization of the 21st century has brought with it an influx of foreign companies, especially in the fields of finance and consultancy. Despite there being a great number of opportunities in the new sectors, the education system has been very unwieldy in adapting to these changes and educating the required number of graduates in such disciplines.
Growth in the finance and allied sectors has not persuaded the government in widening the scope of public investment in education outside of science disciplines. Announcements regarding the establishments of new IITs and All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) are not rare, as over a dozen IITs were established in the last decade, while six new AIIMS were established during the same period. However, there has not been a single specialized institution that was established which focuses on liberal arts and management education; the government if it wills, can establish state-of-the-art institutions that cater to a diverse set of non-technical student base. The Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) which primarily cater to post-graduate students can be used as a template to extend programmes to undergraduates in the fields of management and finance. The Indian Institute of Science (IISc) remains the sole institution in the country that propagates education in the natural sciences at a world-class level. Regional universities such as the universities of Delhi, Calcutta, Mumbai and Madras, in addition to private deemed-to-be universities, are the only institutions in the country that have managed to sustain and develop their humanities and commerce courses despite governmental and societal disinterest in the matter.
It may be argued that allied professional courses in the fields of humanities, social sciences and commerce such as law and chartered accountancy still wield the ‘demand’ and prestige in society as ever, the former of which is taught at premier national law schools in India. However, many multi-national companies with offices in India today recruit graduates and students from a wide range of fields including fine-arts and humanities. The major factor behind such diversification of human capital is the belief in the transferability of skills irrespective of the field of education. But the question is whether preference is being given to courses that provide a traditional and secure route to employment versus courses that are genuinely perceived to be lacking in ‘scope’, and if so, what needs to be done to ensure that education in India is not a mere means to an end but is one that reflects on the true meaning of learning and becoming.
It is imperative that the Government of India ensures that investment in education is equitable across disciplines. A developing country like India which stands on the cusp of industrialization needs professionals from different fields of human endeavour. The growth of the Indian service sector means that professionals with technical and soft-skills from various backgrounds stand to find good employment in multi-national companies and domestic entrepreneurial ventures. For this economic potential to be effectively tapped, the mindset of the society needs to be adapted to the changing times and the myriad opportunities that are available across disciplines. Perhaps the reluctance of corporations to hire students from non-mainstream degree courses is fueled by the lack of funding from the government and the perception that such courses are less rigorous in comparison to their engineering and medical counterparts, but there is no dearth for examples of persons who have succeeded not despite their education in the humanities and liberal arts, but because of it. However, it must be optimistically noted that students are increasingly opting for less traditional courses of study and are doing equally well in comparison to their counterparts in engineering and medicine. Of course, engineering and medical courses in India and their graduates are not without their fair share of troubles. The government can alleviate such troubles in all disciplines of higher education by streamlining the education process and spending more on education (India allocated 80,000 crores on education or 2.71% of the total budget outlay in 2017), accrediting programmes that are adaptable such as distance learning degrees and online courses, shifting focus away from professional programmes in the sciences and reducing governmental bias against non-technical programmes. Therefore it is high time to acknowledge that the stagnation of the education system may have repercussions everywhere in the national system. As noted educationist John Dewey stated, ‘learning should not be treated as a means to an end, but as an end in and of itself’; education should not just serve as a means to secure employment, but it must enshrine the quest for knowledge which has been the prime reason for the sustenance of humanity across many millennia.
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