‘Need for a rethink on curriculum, pedagogy’ says Prof. Girish Agarwal, Shiv Nadar University

Careers360 brings you yet another from the series of director interview where Prof. Girish Agrawal, Associate Director at Shiv Nadar University, shares his views on India’s technical education.

Read here the Interview of Prof. Girish Agrawal where he talks on the future prospects of engineering programmes and the need of quality engineers in India.

Careers360: How can India’s technical education become more robust and yielding?
Prof. Girish Agarwal: A majority of engineering graduates in India come out of four years of education having little to no practical knowledge or experience, a weak grasp on theory, and, perhaps worse, having lost their sense of wonder. Numerous studies and surveys have reported that as many as ninety percent of engineering graduates are considered unemployable by industry.

Except for a handful of exceptions, the remainder of the approximately 3,400 engineering colleges in the country have poor teaching quality, non-existent research facilities, and outdated (or simply missing) laboratory facilities. Even in institutions, which have the resources and facilities, such as the IITs, NITs, and a few state colleges, the value addition by the institutions is not what it should be.

To correct this, we need to rethink the undergraduate engineering curriculum and our pedagogical approach. The engineering curriculum followed by most institutions is outdated – not necessarily in terms of the curriculum per se, but more in terms of how things are taught. The conventional approach of a lecture followed by laboratory sessions has not worked. Undergraduate engineering education needs to become more research oriented, taught by faculty who are active researchers, faculty who have not lost their enthusiasm to build things, to innovate, to get their hands dirty.

Careers360: Engineering colleges are now considered as a gateway to a career rather than one for pursuing knowledge. Your views.
Prof. Girish Agarwal: First, I do not believe that this is such an either or proposition. Getting a degree, any degree, is the pursuit of knowledge. Second, this point of view, of seeing an engineering degree as a gateway to a career is not new. An engineering degree has been seen as opening the door to a stable, well-paying career for as long as I can remember. At least half of my 200 batchmates in IITD 35 years ago were there not because they had any particular interest in becoming engineers, but because having an engineering degree was seen as one of the few sure ways to a relatively comfortable life if one did not come from money.

So yes, being focused on gaining a degree in engineering to the exclusion of every other field of human knowledge would be sad, but most students do not really do that. Plus, most of the better engineering colleges and universities do ensure that students are exposed to a wide range of human knowledge. For instance, all engineering undergraduate students at SNU are required to take a minimum of 16 courses in broadly defined topic areas such as “Indian History and Society,” “Cognition and Intelligence,” and “Environment and Ecology.” The IITs all have an equal number of mandatory courses in Humanities and Social Sciences.


Prof. Girish Agrawal,
Associate Director (Strategy and Planning),
Department of Civil Engineering, School of Engineering,
Shiv Nadar University

The total hiring of engineering graduates by both the public and private sectors together has hovered at less than 2 lakh a year for the last few years.

Careers360: Does India need more than 16 lakh engineers every year? Your views.

Prof. Girish Agarwal: The approved intake capacity may be 16 lakh, but the estimated number who actually graduate is less than half of that. Sadly enough, even these 7 or 8 lakh newly minted engineers do not have the requisite skills or knowledge to be employed in core engineering jobs. Even if we manage to dramatically improve the quality of education across all the nearly 3,500 engineering colleges in India, 7 to 8 lakh new engineers a year will still be too many. I say this based on the fact that the total hiring of engineering graduates by both the public and private sectors together has hovered at less than 2 lakh a year for the last few years. If we take out hiring by the IT and BPO sector, this figure falls closer to one lakh. These figures may improve somewhat under an optimistic scenario of rapid growth and dramatic changes in policy which encourage the public and private sector to build in-house engineering capabilities and capacity, but even then the total hiring is unlikely to exceed about 3 lakh new engineering hires every year.

I estimate the 3 lakh figure based on data available from global studies. As one example, the U.S. produces about 83,000 new engineering graduates every year, and despite all the rhetoric one hears, there is no shortage of engineers in the U.S.  (A not so small percentage remains without suitable engineering employment even a year after graduation.) Since India’s population is about four times that of the U.S., we would not need more than about 3 to 4 lakh engineering graduates a year even if we were to somehow erase the difference in levels of industrialization and infrastructure development between India and the U.S.

Careers360: Do you feel the government needs to take more proactive steps to build up its own technical workforce?
Prof. Girish Agarwal: Governments at all levels must change their own hiring and promotion practices. Build in-house technical capabilities by creating a technical career track in all ministries and departments. Ensure that Make in India is truly Make in India, and not Make Elsewhere and Copy in India. India needs hundreds of thousands of civil engineers and mechanical engineers and chemical engineers. This will only come about when the government takes the lead to build up its own technical workforce capable of performing the regulatory and oversight functions in addition to the direct engineering work done by PSUs. Private industry hiring practices will automatically follow.

Careers360: What are your views on how to streamline the placement mechanisms in engineering colleges in India?
Prof. Girish Agarwal: This is a difficult problem, but doable. There are two issues here. One, how to get potential employers to recruit from their campus, and secondarily, how to streamline the recruitment process itself so that every graduating student gets a fair shot at obtaining employment and the potential employers have access to the best potential fits for the jobs they are offering – both of these goals must be met while minimizing the disruptions to the academic schedule.

The best possible way to achieve the above is for each college to have a dedicated placement/career development office with experienced, full-time professional staff. These should be people with some combination of professional experience in engineering education, recruitment, and practice, and should come from both the public and private sectors. In addition, online scheduling and tracking systems should be used with different areas open to recruiters and to students, so that students can apply online, get interviews scheduled, and submit credentials online. Something similar to the online job portals, which have become so popular in the last decade.

Careers360: Do you believe that the recruitment process of faculty members in engineering institutes assure that only the ‘best-in-class’ are selected?
Prof. Girish Agarwal: No, except for the leading central and state institutes, and a handful of the private engineering institutes and universities, most engineering institutes are somewhat indifferent to the quality of the faculty they select. Of course, no engineering institute will publicly admit it, but a depressingly large number of them just want to meet the minimal norms on paper and fill their faculty slots so that they can offer the required courses. Beyond that, they do not really care if a member of the faculty is interested in research or not, or keeps their technical knowledge up to date through self-study, or, worst of all, is even comfortable with the subjects they are teaching. I have interviewed several such faculties from private as well as government institutions when they applied for doctoral programs in the School of Engineering here at SNU. Although generally smart and eager to further their education, their basic knowledge in the very subjects they were teaching was so lacking that they did not even qualify for the first cut. One has to wonder what kind of education they can provide their students if they themselves do not seem to know even the basics of their subjects.

Careers360: Is there a promising project from your institute that you would like to share with us?
Prof. Girish Agarwal: Many. But I will restrict myself to two interdisciplinary initiatives, which I am excited about. One is a nano-materials initiative, which has been kick-started by Dr. Maity, one of our young faculties in Mechanical Engineering. His project, called “Multi-Functional Magnetic Nanoparticles for Cancer Theranostic Applications,” focuses on development of a novel magnetic nanoparticulate system to efficiently diagnose and kill cancer cells in a site-specific manner (hence the term “Theranostic,” that is a system which combines therapy and diagnostics in one package). Just last week he received a substantial grant from the Department of Biotechnology for this project. Another is an urbanization studies initiative, which includes multiple research projects with faculty from Civil Engineering, Mathematics, Sociology, Environmental Sciences, and Computer Sciences, among others. One of the more exciting projects in this initiative is an effort to study the Urban Heat Island phenomenon in rapidly developing peri-urban areas such as Greater Noida, by building and deploying a network of inexpensive sensors which measure the temperature, humidity, and air quality.

Stay tuned to university.careers360.com for more Director Interviews

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