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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo FEBRUARY 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 6 - SPECIAL ISSUE: 2006 ANNUAL CONFERENCE
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A SURPRISING SHORTAGE - There's a worldwide need for engineers, and even populous India isn't graduating enough to meet its needs. - By Thomas K. Grose - India graduates about 200,000 engineers annually but will need to turn out more in the future.  At left: a new building at the Manipal Institute of Technology.

By Thomas K. Grose

In a developing country like India, the emphasis is on “developing.” And certainly, India is developing like an overzealous bodybuilder on a steady diet of steroids. It boasts the world’s second-fastest-growing economy—its GDP growth rate in the first half of 2005 was an eye-popping 8 percent. Its information technology (IT) services sector is expanding at a torrid pace of 30 percent a year. And given that 35 percent of the country’s population of 1.027 billion—17 percent of the world’s total—is age 15 or under, the demand for new roads, cars, PCs and other consumer electronics products is not about to cool off anytime soon.

To accommodate that kind of growth, India needs an ever increasing army of engineers. Nasscom, a software trade group, estimates that India’s revving IT sector alone will need 2.3 million engineers by 2010 but may miss that goal by 500,000. To avoid that shortfall, it estimates the country needs to graduate an additional 65,000 engineers a year. This school year, about 180,000 IT engineers will graduate. Another report says an additional 10,000 new engineers are needed annually to meet demands in other sectors, ranging from autos to chemicals to energy. Overall, India is graduating around 350,000 engineers a year.

While India has one of world’s most prestigious tech schools with the six-campus India Institutes of Technology (IIT), the campuses churn out only about 3,000 graduates a year. And 35 percent of them usually head off to overseas jobs. So the responsibility of providing India with the engineers it needs to build its future rests squarely on the shoulders of its cadre of so-called second-tier tech schools. There are 2,240 technical schools in India, graduating 207,000 students annually. To be sure, most of these schools are of poor quality, but the top third tend to shine. And they have hard-earned reputations for not only graduating well-trained, motivated engineers but also for working well and closely with industry.

One of the top members of the second-tier brigade is the Manipal Institute of Technology (MIT). Founded in 1957, it is part of the Manipal Group of Institutions. Its engineering departments include electrical and electronics, civil, mechanical, chemical, and information and communications technology.

MIT has a student body of around 4,000, and its graduating class typically numbers around a 1,000 a year. The IITs are famous for being super-picky in selecting students. Only about 2 percent of 200,000 applicants get in. But admissions standards at the better second-tier schools are quite high, too. In 2005, 18,000 candidates fought over a mere 800 openings at MIT, according to Vinod Bhat, MIT’s registrar. And in 2006, Bhat expects 25,000 to 30,000 candidates to apply for the same number of seats.

Student levels in India’s tech schools are firmly set and maintained by several regulatory agencies. And getting permission to increase student intake “is a long, laborious process,” Bhat explains. To skirt regulations 13 years ago, MIT set up an International Center for Applied Sciences. Its 200 students spend two years at MIT, then finish their degree programs at a foreign university, in the United States, Britain or Australia (sidebar, Page 27).

Another respected second-tier school is the PSG College of Technology. Located in the highly industrialized southern India city of Coimbatore, in the state of Tamil Nadu, PSG was established in 1951 by a charitable trust. It has 5,700 undergraduates, says Randayamy Rudramoorthy, PSG principal, and offers bachelor’s degrees in a dozen engineering disciplines.

India’s tech schools tend to have strong links with industry, both domestic and multinational. PSG brags of having ties to nearly 100 top companies, including Microsoft, Intel, Oracle and India’s Tata Consultants. In March, Manipal is opening a $7.6 million innovation and incubation center, and it has invited a number of major companies to open labs in it, including Philips Electronics, Infosys and Hewlett-Packard. Bhat says the labs should provide research opportunities for faculty and hands-on experience for students.

Manipal also has a program that allows companies to help structure elective courses that will train students in specific areas useful to the company. Nasscom recently launched an IT Workforce Development Initiative, involving 35 companies, with the goal of helping tech teachers “better understand the requirements of companies,” explains Deepakshi Jha, a Nasscom spokeswoman.

Most graduates of India’s tech schools remain in India. PSG estimates that 80 percent of its grads opt to stay put. A big reason for that lack of wanderlust is the proclivity of companies to recruit students 12 to 18 months ahead of graduation. PSG says 90 percent of its students have job contracts in hand upon receiving their diplomas.

Study Abroad

The Manipal Institute of Technology (MIT) set up its International Center for Applied Sciences 13 years ago to accommodate students who ultimately wanted to study overseas. Students spend two years studying at Manipal, then finish the final two years of their undergraduate degree program at an overseas university. While the center also sends students on to schools in Britain and Australia, U.S. schools are the destination of choice for most participants, says Vinod Bhat, MIT registrar.

One reason is that MIT’s curriculum mirrors the American model. “Our curriculum is so tailor-made to the United States, students often go on to other schools with which we have no formal understanding,” Bhat says. Some have ended up at such top institutions as Johns Hopkins University and the University of Michigan. Schools it does have formal links with include St. Cloud State University, the Milwaukee School of Engineering and Michigan Technological University.

Another reason for the popularity of American schools: Indian students can earn money in work/study programs and apply for scholarships. That’s not the case in the U.K. and Australia, and it’s a big help to students who have to pay the going tuition rate once they’re stateside. U.S. tuitions range from $12,000 to $25,000 a year.

Charles S. Tritt, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Milwaukee, says the school began accepting students from the center in the mid-1990s. In some years, it’s gotten as many as a dozen students a year from Manipal. The program isn’t problem-free, however. Initially, students from Manipal did very well at Milwaukee, but more recent arrivals have had academic problems. Tritt admits: “We probably accepted some students we should not have.” But standards have been raised, and Milwaukee expects its current crop of Manipal students to perform well academically.

However successful it is, Manipal’s international program isn’t doing much to ease India’s engineering shortage. Says Bhat: “Unless they have strong ties to here, most students prefer to stay in the United States once they’ve gotten used to American life. Most do not miss India very much.” -TG

Starting salaries for engineers tend to be around $400 a month. That’s a minuscule amount compared with American wages. But it’s not a bad income for a 22-year-old recent grad in a country where the average monthly income for an urban middle-class family is $800. The good income is a necessity. Like their American counterparts, Indian tech graduates often begin their careers saddled with student loans that need repaying. Manipal works with several banks that make student loans very easy, Bhat says. Loans to cover tuition are a fact of life for most tech students, even though tuitions for domestic students are extremely low by U.S. standards. A four-year bachelor’s program costs between $4,000 and $5,000 at PSG; Manipal charges closer to $9,000.

The tech schools clearly profit from their close relationships with business, as their impressive job-placement record indicates. But there is a downside. The early recruitment policies and the allure of top-paying jobs means there’s a dearth of graduate students at the schools. Manipal has only 120 grad students. PSG has 200 in its master’s program and another 100 Ph.D. candidates. “We don’t have many takers,” Bhat says. And Rudramoorthy admits that his grad students aren’t always the most talented. “The trouble is,” he explains, “the cream all go to industry.” Ultimately, that grad school drain should concern industry, Bhat adds, because “there will be no talent pool for higher education,” exacerbating what’s already a major problem for tech schools—a shortage of qualified teachers.

“Faculty recruitment is always an issue because the IT industry pays well,” Rudramoorthy says. BusinessWeek magazine noted last year that a typical Indian tech school professor with 15 years’ experience will earn about $575 a month. A similarly experienced software designer can pocket about eight times that amount. Bhat knows that the pay gap will never close because “there is no way that tech schools will ever be able to match” industrial wages. However, Manipal has come up with a method to enable many professors to nearly bridge it. It pays faculty members who bring in research grants extra “incentive fees.”

If the shortage of qualified teachers is a headache for top schools like Manipal and PSG, it’s life-threatening to the two-thirds of the tech schools that struggle to meet minimum levels of academic standards. Despite the demand for engineers and huge numbers of eager candidates, many of the lesser schools can’t attract their full quota of students. The government closed 100 underperforming schools last year.

That’s a worrying development. If it wants to keep its superheated economy from cooling down, India needs even more high-quality tech schools like Manipal and PSG, turning out ever greater numbers of engineers.

Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in Great Britain.

 

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