IITs must not scrap departments that have low traction in the job market
Indian Institute of Technology (IITs), the country’s premier institutions for science and engineering education, may discontinue some undergraduate courses, as an increasing number of students are refusing to take admission after various rounds of counselling, and seats remain vacant, a report in the Hindustan Times says. This suggestion from the Ministry of Human Resource and Development (MHRD) to the IITs will be taken up for discussion at a meeting of the Joint Admission Board (JAB) on August 20.
But are seats vacant because students aren’t interested? Dheeraj Sanghi, professor of Computer Science and former Dean of Academic Affairs at IIT Kanpur, argued in a blog post that the admission process is the real bottleneck.
Here’s how it works: Students get priority on institutes and courses based on their ranks, and the counselling process continues for several rounds – seven in 2017. Based on data from last year, Sanghi observed vacancies mounted in the latter phases of counselling and peaked after the fifth. This, he said, was because acceptance fees are forfeited after that round, so students pulled out. But by then, only one round remains to fill seats.
Sanghi argued for withdrawals at earlier stages, and suggests some remedies: Accept slightly higher number of students than seats; give incentives to get rid of disinterested students; set financial penalties for late withdrawal; and allow students to withdraw or remove preferences they may no longer be interested in.
But even if we disregarded this theory and accepted that vacancies in some courses are because of their relatively low traction in the job market, should IITs scrap them?
The answer lies in a deeper fundamental question: what is the purpose of education at IITs? If providing employment to undergraduate students is the most important objective, sure, shut down departments. In fact, if student choice and industry demand is to be the primary criteria for deciding batch strength for departments, most of the seats should be converted to Computer Science (CS). That’s where the hottest—and high paying—jobs in the technology sector lie. Even those who have made the worst predictions for job losses due to automation would agree that jobs in data science and artificial intelligence will continue to rise. Why even have any other department?
So should they? No. I am confident that at least the academic leadership would agree that while student placement is important—and perhaps the most crucial aspect for the majority of students—it can’t be the primary objective of the country’s premier technical institutions. Quality research, innovation, and exposure to various disciplines of science, engineering and humanities for a holistic education must take precedence.
At IIT Kanpur, where I studied, I have seen several cases where students who take admissions in not-so-popular departments—in perception terms alone—like Materials Science and Civil Engineering, go for doctoral studies after graduation, even though they weren’t interested in the subject at the time of admission. That’s what the Institute must aim for: Ignite young minds of the possibilities in fields where the industry pay may not lucrative but is no less important in the world of science and technology.
Sure, a whole bunch of students may still not like certain departments and enough jobs may not be available in those sectors, but again, that hardly matters. Most IIT graduates don’t land up in core engineering jobs anyway. Barring a few, a large number of students from even traditional departments like mechanical, civil and chemical engineering work in the analytics, consulting, finance sector or work as programmers. That’s where the bulk of the IIT graduates find employment. Who, then, cares about the discipline of study?
If we do shut departments in response to student choice and industry demand, we would set a bad precedent, with long term implications for higher education policy in India. And that must be avoided.