The undergraduate programmes in the IITs focus on teaching traditional science and engineering branches in a conventional manner, even as the world turns multi-disciplinary with the onslaught of automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and assorted digital technologies. Conventional manufacturing is undergoing rapid changes, routine objects are manufactured by robotic assembly lines (and now also by 3D printing) with fewer supervisors than ever. Chemical plants too need fewer employees with the deployment of sensors and Internet-of-Things technologies. Similar effects can be seen in construction. Overall, jobs in traditional engineering streams are on the decline. A technology-dominated era "running" on the cloud and apps needs computer scientists and operators but few of everything else conventional. The occasional real innovation, such as a novel design or new product, needs very few people for its genesis and development. This scenario spells doom in the classroom for science and engineering - other than computer science/engineering and some parts of electrical/electronics engineering.
In this vista where does the IIT engineer fit? During the first year, as students struggle with burnout, they also start learning about the "irrelevance" of their JEE ranked branches: about the poor placement opportunities in core (their branch-of-engineering) jobs, about the lower pay in such jobs than in coding or analytics (these are big categories), and about the large pay packages that await a few peers who will join technology companies. Students also become familiar with the seductive possibilities of making "lots" of money by "doing" startups, encouraged by all the hype about how IIT graduates should become employers instead of seeking jobs. Of course very little mention is made of the technical quality of these startups - their copycat nature (you sell tomatoes, so I'll sell onions), or the dominance of routine app-based service providers, online sellers or aggregators, of whom only a miniscule number have any innovation. How often is a world-class, successful product which has some connection with technical knowledge based on expertise gleaned from an IIT education?
The general message absorbed by students is that domain knowledge in traditional branches is not very relevant; the burnout/incompetence at the time of entry is now sustained by these rationalizations. Students become ever more indifferent to academic work, sometimes even hostile, and in extreme cases, some slide into a permanent state of laziness, sloth and distraction; the more energetic ones get pushed into alternate interests, such as personality development (leadership, positions of responsibility), extracurricular activities (sports, music, theater), business, financial/ management activities (various clubs, casual online courses). Many students conclude that science and engineering are not "worth it".
Conversations with students, public student blogs, questions and concerns expressed on social media platforms suggest that IIT students are acutely aware of the ground reality. A cheeky response from a student on Quora, when asked "How is life after cracking the IIT? Do we still need to study for 10-12 hours in IIT?", is "NO, YOU DON'T. As a student of IIT Roorkee let me give you some ideas about life in IITs. Most students study for one week prior to exams. Exceptions are there but I am talking about most of the students." Another one suggests that these ideas are given by the coaching classes themselves, "It's a bad mindset given by coaching classes that you don't need to study after getting in IITs, life is chill, no worries etc. Which is completely wrong.I had the same feeling when I entered IIT Bombay, use to study only a day before the exams, bunking classes, etc. Resulted in being a 5 pointer (five point someone) for 1st and 2nd year." Inside the IITs, students have published articles like "Why We Don't Study at IITB". The experiential angst and the attitudes that this situation has wrought are worrisome. As teachers, we experience these attitudes in our classrooms and courses.
There is not much public discussion around this, and as long as all students find some job, it appears to not matter what type of job it is. So even if, say, 60 to 80% of graduating students from some branch work in sectors that have no connection with the technical content of their branch, it does not faze anyone because the number of graduating students without jobs is very small (and they too find something to do later). When cornered about this situation, a standard response is to talk about the general nature of the "great" education in the IITs that allows students to pursue "anything they want". Alankar Jain blogs, "Last year, I asked the director of IIT Bombay about the institute's opinion on most undergrads taking up careers not even remotely related to their core fields of study. He replied that institute was fine as long as students continued to contribute to the society in a meaningful way. Although, it's an admirably liberal and pragmatic position to take, it's also a bit complacent one as it glosses over the issues we face. We can't be okay with so many of our students studying stuff they don't care about." It also raises the important question: why are we spending so much on an engineering training that is "misallocated" subsequently?
The student focus during the placement process is exclusively on the size of salary packages and how quickly they got their offers (yes, students break into depression if the placements do not happen in the "first three" days - it is a great setback to their self esteem). Jain says, "From 8 in the morning till midnight, I had given 13 job interviews. In my extreme desperation to get a job, I had pleaded and begged. I felt too ashamed to pick my parents' and brother's calls as the towering expectations they had from me and I had from myself had been shattered...It slowly began to sink in that I had failed to secure a job on the first day. Failed." When I first learned of this "phenomenon" of depression caused by failed "Day One placements" I could not believe that it mattered so much to students' sense of success and failure. Apparently, some of these expectations are linked to the fact that the most prestigious (and usually the better paying) companies are given the earliest slots in the placement season. It is distressing that a dehumanized sense of hyper-competition, along with anxiety and stress, seems to be embedded in the "soul" of IIT undergraduates.
Add to this parental expectations - when core jobs, if available, offer less than a coding or analytics or banking job, why bother with core jobs at all? Parents are known to have told their children to drop their 15-lakh package in a core sector for a 25-lakh banking job.
Bits and pieces of such situations are written about in the media but all of this is overshadowed by the "1 Cr +" salary hype. This report mentions the case of a mechanical engineering student who wanted to take up a core job, but instead opted for a bank offer due to intense parental pressure. Another student, upon receiving a 30-lakh offer, says, "But my parents asked me about the crore-plus packages they have read about".
(Anurag Mehra is a Professor of Chemical Engineering and Associate Faculty at the Center for Policy Studies, at IIT Bombay.)
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