November 21, 2007

The Great Indian Educational Reprieve

Note: This is a long one

I am an Engineer. Why? I have no actual idea. I took Engineering because I didn't get into Medicine and because my brother did it. Both reasons pretty lousy if you ask me. Why did I take Electronics? Brother dear of course... Why did he do Engineering? Actually, I'll ask him when I meet him tomorrow. But I think I've conveyed my point. From what I have discussed with friends, I have discovered that very few, if any, had any idea what they were getting into with engineering (or anything else for that matter)... everyone thought all you needed was to be fundamentally sound in Mathematics and Physics - both key components, but not the main ones. The important questions that needed to have been answered back then -

1. Was there passion? - Probably not back then.. We had no idea what we were going to be doing..
2. Motivation? - Would good money and a nice-sounding degree qualify?

That is the fundamental problem with the Indian educational system (please discount IIT and BITS - they're the only worthwhile undergraduate institutions for technical study in India). As I was discussing with GH just now, the high school education in India rocks.. when compared to most other countries... We beat China sheerly because most of our schools are English medium.. We beat all other countries hands down because we really don't need a calculator to do 5+4x9-7/6 (yeah it takes a few seconds.. but we're never completely lost) amongst other things.

The problems

1. Learning by the rote: I wonder why we need to know the derivation of E = mc2 when we can just as easily find it on the Internet or something - you may say that the Internet didn't exist back then, blah blah - but when technology has evolved, the educational system needs to have coped alongside for the most effective development. When I came here and was introduced to the concept of the "cheat sheet", I was initially flabbergasted. But the more I read into it, the more it made sense. Its the Sherlock Holmes logic. Why crowd your brain with information you can find in our case, a search query away?

2. Progressive Evaluation: While the high school I was in was known for its continuous evaluation which ensured most of my fundamentals were right (though I cursed it back then). Back in Engineering, I don't remember "learning" anything. It was 4 years of carefree fun, a few days of cramming before the semester exams, practically no homework, easygoing labs and just one final year project which many people ended up "buying". I wrote a post about our exams back then. While that was in light vein, on a serious note, it left us a little unprepared for a competitive educational system like that in the US. When I came here, I was amazed by the range of knowledge and practical experience that the senior students (our high school equivalents) had accumulated over a range of topics. Though I coped great with grad school, I couldn't help but feel cheated with the undergraduate system that left me quite unprepared for the future. This is not how it works in the BITS and the IITs and thats exactly how the rest of the colleges in India need to implement.

3. Autonomous Universities: Each University here in the US is just the equivalent of each of our colleges back in India which is affiliated to a University. But the system here is so sound that they have complete autonomy in all their distinction and no matter where you study it is deemed prestigious. While it is going to take a while in India for that to happen, I see no change with those restricted few colleges that have gained autonomous privileges (eg. whats different in Sathaybama from when they became autonomous to when they remained affiliated? - Nothing). The system slowly but surely has to change.

4. The Teachers: Yes - Mata, Pita, Guru, Deivam.. But you need to be able to respect the Guru. And there are exceptions to every generalization. We have seen our share of mentors back in India as well.. there have been some phenomenal motivators. But for every single one of them, we have 100 others who finish their education at one college and start teaching the next semester at the same college, with just a graduate degree. This could never ever happen in the US. Every professor has to have a PhD for a reputed institution. He/She has to bring in some grants/money and conduct research or lead academic discussions. They have a range of students from post docs to undergraduates working for them, expanding their ideas and their research. Its a whole pool. The kind of respect that you gain when you work under a professor, your advisor/mentor borders on reverence here.. something which I haven't been able to feel back in India. I will comment about the educational system in the Europe shortly.

5.The jobs: Every person who has an Engineering degree seems directly to be entitled to employment in the software industry. And frankly no one cares whether the degree is in Mechanical or Civil engineering. The pay is good and thats all that seems to matter. Pretty sad if you ask me. That goes back to there being no direction or passion in the study that one has entailed. The 4 year education was a stop over to making the money. I can actually understand that in some families where the whole family has made many sacrifices to educate the one stellar student in the hopes that the job he/she gets at the end of the education will uplift the financial situation of the entire family. Whats sad is that the availability of specific jobs as per fields of specialization pale in comparison with the abundant high-paying software jobs. Yes, the quality of living has improved for the recent generation in India and all is owed to these software giants.. but it is still unsettling.

And those are just some fundamental problems. The more I think about it, the more that there is. Personally, I am not surprised about the Brain Drain in the intial stages, i.e. say after a Bachelors degree, simply because the post graduate study in India leaves a lot to be desired for in terms of recognition and reward. But I take heart in that I see many people returning. After that initial stay abroad, after that first job after the education. It is happening slowly, but in larger numbers. And this I am proud of. I started this post so long ago that I can't remember what I wanted to conclude from it... But I suppose this is the bottomline. The educational minister of India and every teacher who cares needs to evaluate this system for what it is and make the necessary reforms to improve it.. to introduce the world class quality that is desired of it.. to make it a force to reckon with. After all, they don't say India is the next big super power for nothing, do they?


Pramod said...

Note : This a very long one!! :P:P

One thing I am proud of about myself is that I am in a career that I chose for myself and one that I know why I chose this particular career.

When I came for an admission into 11th into our school, I was asked why I was not taking up Science in spite of my "high" marks. This sums up the education system and the stereotypes that are deep rooted in India.

I am not sure about discounting the IITs and BITS in this regard. They get away because they deal with the cream and with the cream, anything works!!! Had a whole post about IITs and IIMs a while ago at

Talking about the points u have mentioned :

1. U say that we beat other countries coz we dont need a calculator. But imagine if we had used a calculator from grade 4? Thats exactly why we are taught derivations of e = mc^2. I think it is not what is being taught, but how it is being taught that is the problem with Indian Education system. I understood trigonometry so well because it had application oriented learning. We found the height of a poll based on the height of a tower etc etc. I did not appreciate Differentiation or integration because all we were taught is if the question is in a particular format, substitute something to t and u will get the answer!!!!! Thats not "learning".

Cheat sheets, open book exams etc are good for higher education. Upto school it shd all be from memory and with minimal aids.

2. Agree with u. This is lacking in the India system. Another thing is the 100% weightage that exams have. I'd like to see more of a pragmatic approach with assignments and presentations forming the assessing criteria.

4. I dont have first hand info on this but if Graduate students can tutor while they are studying , then ur claim that profs need to have a PHd is baseless. Tutors teach as well. Also , if i am not mistaken there are different levels - Lecturer, Professor, Associate proffesor etc etc which we dont have in India. I think the % of crappy teachers is the same everywhere.

5. If Infosys and the likes bulk recruit ppl who complete Engineering, irrespective of teh stream, the background, then the market gets dirty. Every Tom Dick Jane and Harry wants BE after his/her name without knowing if they have the aptitude for the same. People dont know the difference between a job and a career - theres a world of difference. The title to this point "The jobs" is interesting too. Chk out : Skills vs Qualification here :

Campus recruitments used to happen in teh 4th year and now its happening in eth 3rd, the way its going, an engineering admit card wud be enough for a plum job with an IT major. Where are we heading!!!!!!

Indias education system is merely churning people with a few alphabets as suffixes to the end of their name.

Sorry about this really long one. This is a topic I love to speak about - education systems

Jaya said...

Pramod -> I agree with many and disagree with many of ur points.. Maybe we shd take this offline into GTalk or something!

Radhika said...

Aha! *nodding head all through the post*

I have no idea why I became an engineer and have often pondered why i never bothered to give a thought to 'what I wanted to do'. I have no clue why I landed in software either. It seemed like a natural progression back then. Now it seems anything but natural.

About college in India:

1. The rote system: I totally agree. I dont remember much of what I did in class. Except that our lecturer had a handlebar moustache.Our lecturers were mostly our seniors, when we had any, that is.

2. Evaluation: What evaluation? Our exams were a joke. I spent the 'study holidays' frantically making xeroxes. oh, and thats when I looked at the syllabi.

3. The teachers: Umm, well. There are bad teachers everywhere. I have come across some pretty bad (though well qualified teachers here). But I have come across more good teachers here than in India.

4. The jobs: We have a pretty sad work culture back in India. People are sure getting richer, at the cost of India becoming one giant sweat shop.

I have learnt much more in my 1.5 years at grad school than 4 years of engineering in India. I enjoy every minute of it here.

IBut that could be just me.

Another problem, which is slowly changing now, is that certain professions and degrees are more 'respectable' than others in india and hence people flock to them for just that reason. The engineering and medicine professions, for instance.
I would never have been able to get a degree in 'media, culture and communication' if i was in India.

frankly, much needs to change back home. And what is changing, I dont like.

Gautam said...

sometimes i think those derivations with all that math jazz was a good thing. especially right now, when i'm studying the advanced concepts of finance, most US students can tackle the problems, but they don't understand what happened and how it happened, and if there was an anomaly somewhere, how would it impact the result. In that case, the knowledge of that formula does not matter, but how we got that matters.

In a nutshell, it's a good thing we came through that cram it up math phase with all the whining and cursing our profs. back home, but it does makes one knowledge superior in understanding real world concepts at some level.

The other issues, i more or less agree - no point cramming all the unnecessary stuff and putting practical applications in to place..etc. etc....


PS: Been ages since i stopped by here ;)

Jaya said...


Appreciate all of ur comments.. Am going to take my time to reply to everything. As u may have noticed, there are no new blogs.. I've been terribly busy and I will try to reestablish regularity to the blog.

Gautam -- Keep visiting

Sriram said...

Great writing Ms.J

Almost all of us (incluDing those from BITS and IITs) have strong opinions and reservations about our educational system...

Very neatly expressed thoughts about what you percieve to be problems...However one quick sense check... Are you sure these are THE problems or the symptoms that show... Any thoughts J ? and mebbe it would be interesting to talk about it sometime :)...

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