Recently, Twitter was abuzz with tweets from the current and former human resource development (HRD) ministers congratulating the ministry and the National Board of Accreditation (NBA) as India became a permanent member of the Washington Accord (WA). This was achieved after several years of consistent effort by the MHRD, while India was a provisional member of WA since 2007. So, does this mean that India’s engineering education has suddenly improved? Before we jump into the benefits or lack of them, let us put the “accords” into perspective.
Globally, there are at least half a dozen accords on engineering education and all of them are non-governmental, with WA being the most popular one. With India’s inclusion, WA now involves 17 nations including the US, Japan, South Korea, Russia and others for accrediting professional engineering degree programmes through an international agreement. Noticeably, China is not part of the accord. WA recognises the substantial equivalency (meaning accreditation systems have comparable standards, outcomes, and processes, though they may not be identical) of programmes accredited. It also recommends that graduates of accredited programmes in any of the signatory countries be recognised by the other countries as having met academic requirements. The idea is to improve technical education worldwide and foster the mobility of students/graduates and also help in better preparedness to begin entry-level professional practice.
WA covers the four-year professional engineering undergraduate degrees around core engineering domains like mechanical, electrical, electronics, chemical and structural engineering, among others. However, it does not cover software and computing stream. The International Engineering Alliance website clarifies that accreditation is not retroactive but takes effect only from the date of admission of the country to signatory status. The other agreements covering mutual recognition of engineering education include the Sydney Accord, signed in 2001 for bachelor’s-level engineering technology programmes and the Dublin Accord, signed in 2002 for associate’s-level engineering technician and diploma. In general, the accords specify duration of the programmes and title offered (BE, BTech, diploma, etc.)
The Seoul Accord, which commenced in 2008, exclusively focusses on computing and software engineering programmes. Isn’t it intriguing that India is not a part of this accord? India should have been chairing the accord considering that we boast more than a 3.1 million-strong IT workforce and our engineering education system is already tilted towards the IT industry.
Sample this: The approved intake for undergraduate engineering courses in India is over 16 lakh per year and there are 3,500 approved colleges. The numbers are big enough for India to strengthen its accreditation standard and enrol other nations into it. How about an India Accord? It is time for India to demonstrate leadership.
India’s NBA, an autonomous body, is responsible for periodic evaluations of technical institutions in the country. It classifies the engineering colleges in the country as Tier 1—covering the institutes of national importance (including IITs, IIITs, NITs, IISERs and IISC), autonomous and deemed universities. Tier-2 would cover the rest of the engineering colleges affiliated to various universities in the country.
The NBA website states that the courses/programmes in Tier 1 institutions would receive the accreditation status and international equivalence under WA. Now, the challenge is to obtain WA accreditation for the Tier-2 institutions.
The high weightage parameters required for WA accreditation include faculty contributions, programme outcomes, facilities and technical support. This would mean huge effort and cost to be incurred by the colleges for modifying existing courses, training/replacing academic staff, improving infrastructure and cost of accreditation process. It is likely that the cost will simply be passed on to the students. This is justifiable, provided there is a marked improvement in the quality/employability of the engineers.
In a country where anything foreign is highly valued, it looks like the NBA has used WA as a tool for overhauling the engineering education system. This is perfectly fine as long as NBA achieves its goal of improving technical education in the country.
Even without WA, the best students in India, keen on pursuing higher education or engineers seeking jobs abroad, have been able to fulfill their dreams. Similarly, the best colleges are always invited by other nations to start new campuses. So, the ground-level impact is unclear on these areas. Rather than focusing on mobility of students, NBA and the MHRD’s priority should be to cater to the engineering requirements within the country—improvement in quality of engineering graduates including technical, soft skills and innovation. Adopting best practices from other countries is needed, but the aim should be India-focused. This also means an environment that fosters active partnerships between industry and engineering colleges is much needed.
The job market is a function of demand and supply. Assuming the quality of engineers is addressed, what about job opportunities? Currently over 60 per cent of the engineering graduates don’t find jobs and are forced to take up non-engineering jobs. The government should take a holistic view of entry-level workforce demand-supply and support growth in existing/new industries with a long-term view.
We should move away from quantity-oriented approach and rather focus on quality. Intake in engineering colleges should be monitored as the cut-off scores are significantly watered down just to fill vacant seats. The MHRD should also consider raising the duration of engineering courses to allow for apprenticeships. In addition, a clear road map to support research activities through industry participation is pivotal. India also has a sizeable diploma colleges and many of the aspects from WA-triggered initiatives can be replicated into diploma courses as well.
While India’s entry into WA is appreciated, it should not end up becoming a marketing tool. It is imperative that the MHRD utilises WA as a trigger to ensure industry-academia participation and overhaul the engineering education system to spur innovation, research and entrepreneurial skills.
We need “India-ready” engineers to find the “right jobs” and importantly in India!
The writer is adviser, Centre for Educational and Social studies, Bangalore.