I recently resigned from being an Assistant Professor in the Computer Science department of a private engineering college. I did so because I was exhausted trying to keep clear of the all-pervasive rot that Indian academia is. What I am about to present to you is an inside view of a typical private engineering college based on two years of experience as a faculty member.
The rot is deep and multi-layered, but it can be easily gleamed, even from the surface. If you are into facts, then fathom this: Over 80% of the new engineers are unemployable. Here’s another: Graduates have two times higher level of unemployment than non-graduates. This last fact might seem paradoxical and scary at the outset, but when you delve deeper into the rot, you realize that these are just natural consequences of how the system has been designed. The new education policy does mention some of these issues but does virtually nothing to address them.
For example, Data Science, which is in huge demand in the industry and has become useful in almost every field, is taught as late as the third year in colleges. From my first day as a professor in the college, I had been pushing our college to teach it much earlier so that students get time to do projects and are ready for jobs. Moreover, it was a subject that is simple enough for even class 12 students to understand.
My repeated requests were firmly rejected because the powerful people did not want their knowledge to be undermined by calling it simple. Some faculty were straight-up against the field of Data Science entirely calling it a fad; a very durable fad apparently! This problem is the rot in a nutshell.
In most cases, Assistant Professors are people with no prior industry experience. Indeed, my college prides itself on having only PhD faculties. Having a PhD implies that the faculty has usually remained in an academic setting and always worked on toy academic problems. Expecting such faculty to teach the latest industry-ready tools and technology is wishful thinking.
In fact, professors have every incentive to not teach modern tools. Doing so will require them to constantly update their skills as well as their courses to include the new content. Also, changing the content will mean increasing the probability of being found out by the students. It is safer to stick to what you know. Result: The curriculum is at least ten years behind the industry in terms of technology.
As an example, programming can be daunting for many initially. Even I, who had always been among the top students, struggled so much with it initially that I had decided to never do programming ever again. After 10 years of avoiding programming, I learnt Python. It was only then that I realized that it isn’t programming that is tough, but the programming languages that I was taught which were tough! Most colleges, even now, introduce programming with those old fashioned languages. It makes even the brightest of the students fear programming.
When I suggested my college to use Python as the first programming language, I was derided as weak by everyone. They said that they had learnt programming with the old languages and thus the students should be able to do it. Python will make it too easy for the students. This argument reeked of ragging; I was ragged as a student, why should the students have it easy?
Unfortunately, this kind of logic makes a lot of students scarred for life and they end up feeling weak and useless. Instead, we should be giving them confidence and power by showing them what awesome things they can do with programming. Then they can understand more complex languages without fear, and with enthusiasm. My college still does not teach Python, the simplest and most versatile of all programming language.
While technology has grown leaps and bounds, most professors still continue using outdated teaching methods. With Covid, there has been a dramatic rise in online education with content curated from the best teachers around the world. Professors feel threatened by this assault to their livelihood. Indeed, if everything we can teach has been done much better and for free, then why are we charging hefty fees from students? This is the deep malaise that professors do not want to address.
Referring to online courses are thus, a strict no-no. We even got a mail from the Head of the Department asking us to not share any video links with students as this will imply we are not capable enough as teachers! This reeks of utter disregard for what’s best for students. We are encouraged to do a shoddy imitation of great content, but never ever reveal your source!
We should instead be embracing the new technology and content. Classes can now be made much more interactive with tools like Kahoot. One can create interactions among students within and outside the classes using collaboration tools like Slack. One can gamify the content and let students learn while playing games. Instead of all these new possibilities, we still stick with the old model of one-sided lectures and tutorials.
Most people think that research is a good thing and our Higher Education Institutes must be encouraged to focus on them. Unfortunately, when it becomes a metric to judge a college, it leads to unwanted side effects. For one, in the race to publish more number of papers (since quantity is the easiest metric), professors end up paying journals to publish dubious, derivative and mostly useless work.
Even the ‘serious’ researchers do not benefit our society in any way and are usually tackling first world problems. Also, this leads to students doing ‘high level’ work without grasping the basics and becoming workhorses executing orders instead of really learning something. Lastly, excess focus on research means professors have much more incentive to cut corners while preparing and updating courses, as time spent on research is valued much more.
It would be much better if researchers instead concentrated on building products and solving immediate problems of our society. This would also impart students with much-needed skills of problem-solving as well as making a useful product and deploying it to gain valuable experience.
Along with some students, I made India’s first live district-wise tracker. Being the first of its kind, we had a million visits in the first two weeks itself. It taught us all many practical lessons about hosting and maintaining a site with so much traffic. This was indeed a rare opportunity and our team of 7 worked very hard (almost 18 hours a day) for it. Guess what was the reaction of my colleagues? A senior colleague of mine (Associate professor) called it a useless application that could be made by a 15-year-old in 30 minutes. If it ain’t research, it’s trivial. This was after the site had become a reference for Covid data in India.
Later, when the number of cases were going up, and the site needed our complete undivided attention, the college refused to exempt the students from online classes and assignments. It was a death knell to our effort and our site tapered off from then on. The refusal of the college to recognize the importance of the work and considerable learning for everyone involved was baffling.
Most people who have decision making power in Academia (Deans and HODs) tend to be very old. While experience, in general, does help you make better decisions, it also makes you wary of change. There is a tendency to stick to the status quo because changing it might lead to undermining your own position.
However, given the rapid changes in technology, it has become necessary that decisions are taken in a more democratic manner by including younger faculty and students in the process. Successful companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft realize this and make sure that the CEOs are from the younger generation with a better finger on society and technology’s pulse. Academia needs to follow the same model to stay continually relevant.
Those are but a few non-exhaustive suggestions. However, creating an incentive system with these objectives is not an easy task. How does one go about quantifying contributions of projects to our society? How to convince the old guard to give up their stranglehold? There are no easy answers and it requires a substantive debate. Even a small progress in addressing these issues will considerably improve the quality of our education and our students.
With the spate of layoffs and the impending financial crisis due to Covid, we need to urgently stem the rot, lest it leads to massive amounts of unemployment and economic stagnation for years to come.
Note: All of what is said here is based on personal anecdotal evidence but my colleagues from other colleges have confirmed to me that my conclusions are indeed valid for almost every private academic institution in our country.