Engineering education: Minor is the new major

“The importance of non-computer science courses is ignored by students who are madly behind computer science and engineering.”
Image used for representational purposes only.
Image used for representational purposes only. (File Photo)

The twin characters of Tintin comic series, Thomson & Thompson differentiate their statements with the first making the opening statement and the other precisely ending up repeating the same with a twist. If Tintin series had included a comic(al) story on professional college admissions in India, Thomson would have said: “Student craze for computer science is ignoring the rising importance of others” and Thompson to be precise would have added:

“The importance of non-computer science courses is ignored by students who are madly behind computer science and engineering.” Even when both mean the same, the comical twins would create little impact in the current scheme of things. Even in Phantom’s Old Jungle saying “Phantom moves faster than light to brighten the mystic darkness around professional college admissions” would sound meaningless. Welcome to the annual seasonal scare that drives parents and students into dizzying comics of deceiving realities.

The number of students appearing for professional college admission tests like JEE, NEET, CLAT, etc. every year is over 3.5 million. The total number of seats for various undergraduate programmes in medical, engineering, law and other professional programmes is estimated to be 1.7 million of which around 25 per cent remains vacant. The All India Council for Technical Education’s (AICTE) policy decision to remove the cap for ‘top performing institutions’ will widen the gap between popular and equally important engineering degree programmes. Be that as it may, the craze for popular programmes like Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence, Data Sciences, etc. is all set to polarise student admissions creating a demand-supply imbalance in the next few years.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Work Report, 2023, identifies technology adoption as the key driver of business transformation in the next five years. The trio drivers of this technology adoption are AI, Big Data and Cloud. The common underlining feature of these top three drivers is the non-linear scale with which employment churning shall happen. This churning has to be understood in the right perspective to mean that manufacturing, transportation, energy, agriculture, etc. shall still dominate engineering profession but the way in which they will shall be transformed.

While corporates need enlightened vigilantism on such huge business transformations triggered by technology, the forthcoming generation of engineering graduates need to also be aware of the balancing academic landscape. They need to understand that engineering is not just about computer science and information technology, and need to realise the changing contours of other engineering degree programmes.

Viksit Bharat@2047 is symptomatic of multi-dimensional growth in all directions like manufacturing, transportation, energy, mining and materials development, semiconductor, water, sanitation, etc. This simply means that engineering education is not just Computer Science and its derivatives like AI, Data Sciences and AR/VR. The terminological glamour associated with such flashy programmes are blinding the youth and binding them to a path of more popularity and less rationale when India’s rise is palpable across all sectors.

A support ecosystem that transcends engineering education beyond conventional borders is the need of the hour. Do we have the toolkit? Yes, we have. Are we deploying them? The answer is a cautious ‘No’, thanks to parents’ and students’ mindless pursuit of popularity which comes with no invitation and leaves with no farewell. The government’s push towards semiconductor manufacturing, digital manufacturing, environmental sustainability, smart cities, digital public infrastructure, creative supply chain, entrepreneurship and innovation, etc. are pointers for the youth who are at the crossroads of their career.

Civil engineering is not about buildings and roads, mechanical is not about engines and machines, electronics is not about signals and systems, etc. Standalone disciplines are flavoured with multidisciplinary additives transitioning engineering education as legacy disciplines merge with exponential technologies. A civil engineer needs to understand the importance of smart cities and digital mobility, mechanical engineer about digital manufacturing and IIoT, electrical and electronics engineer about EV, smart grids and VLSI and so on. India cannot afford another round of polarised growth in engineering education with discipline of study being the polariser this time. Failure to realise the major-minor marriage will orphan the engineering offspring not only leading to social chaos but also weakening nation’s competitive strength in strategic sectors.

A massive policy promotion and sensitisation is necessary to pull out students and parents from this admissions maze filled with craze. The recent NEP 2020 policy push to accommodate multi-disciplinary education is evident in AICTE’s minor-specialisation programmes and UGC’s micro-credits. This double-barrelled academic ammunition needs to fire on all cylinders to bridge the major-minor understanding deficit. In short: “Minor is the new Major.”

S Vaidhyasubramaniam

Vice-Chancellor, SASTRA Deemed University

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