Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a gathering during the India-UK Tech Summit in New Delhi, India, November 7, 2016. Photo: Reuters / Adnan Abidi
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a gathering during the India-UK Tech Summit in New Delhi on November 7, 2016. Photo: Reuters / Adnan Abidi

Anyone who has ever looked up a do-it-yourself project of a decent degree of complexity on the Internet would know that a programmable microcontroller kit such as Arduino or Raspberry Pi is the go-to solution to realize any circuit, having replaced the tangle of tiny, circuit components as diodes, resistors, capacitors, and transistors.

DIY sites are overrun with enthusiastic American, Scandinavian and East Asian schoolchildren creating everything from hand-assembled wristwatches to full-fledged quadcopter drones. No longer does one need to fuss with solder, flux, boards, and confusing interlinks; a tiny chip that is versatile and adaptable serves hundreds of needs, acting according to the code that is fed into it right from one’s personal computer.

Many electronic-engineering students in India are blissfully unacquainted with these technologies of ubiquitous utilities, and those who do become familiar with them do so out of personal initiative and enthusiasm.

Somehow, Indian colleges have managed to evade teaching either the state-of-the-art or the traditional. While outdated textbooks abound with sketches of obsolete chips, education revolves around knowing what each device does, and at best how they do it, completely ignoring how they connect together to accomplish a task or utility. Electronics-engineering education in India is a discipline without a purpose or objective.

The ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) was a room-sized computer completed in 1945 that would look as out of place in a household as it would in the prescribed curriculum of a modern-day computer-science course. The very idea of teaching the detailed structure, function, and operation of a gigantic manual plugs-and-switches-operated computing machine seems downright absurd.

Surely, it would take a minute of tweaking a few lines of codes in a Python console to accomplish the same switch of programs that would need several minutes of manually resetting a jumble of cables and switches in the ENIAC. The modern commonality is thousands of times as fast as 1945’s state of the art.

I took another cutting-edge piece of 1945 technology – the Soviet eavesdropping device called The Thing – and posed it as a challenge to my interview subjects: Emulate the function of the device using modern-day technology. Judging by the people I interviewed, an average electronics-engineering graduate from even a top-tier technology institute in India would concede being unable to realize the working of the device even using contemporary electronic implements. 

Countries nearly always follow the same trajectory of development – the coarser industries, machinations, and technologies develop and proliferate first, and then the successive finer ones follow in their wake. Development of industry corresponds to development of innovation. India in this regard is intriguing – it simply skipped an electronics boom, witnessing a software and IT boom after the expansion of its heavy-industries and energy sectors.

The surge in electronics never came. India simply transitioned to computing from heavy industries. Indian electronics engineering education is stuck in a limbo – beautifully exemplified by large-scale-integration ICs, an intermediate generation of integrated circuits that until recently often occupied the brunt of the syllabus.

Ranging from the hundreds to several thousands, these ICs are too simple to be useful and too complex to be dissected and comprehended. In fact, the subject of VLSI (very large-scale integration), the next generation of integration, is often worth only a few credits in a single semester of the course.

Keep in mind the fact that with each successive generation of integration (which, put simply, is the shrinkage and assemblage of a multitude of the previous generation of components in the same space), the complexity and efficiency of the devices increases roughly fiftyfold.  

Another recent electronic-engineering graduate who wished to remain anonymous affirmed to me that the existing curricula lag behind industry requirements, and also pointed out that industry often requires the performance of specific tasks on the part of employees that appropriated implementation of specialization at the undergraduate level given the vastness and diversity of the electronics syllabus.

The restriction of the study of VLSI and programmable microcontrollers to very few segments in the course was another setback.

Upon being asked why a number of theoretically sound, well-scoring students, even those who retain a firm grasp of conceptual principles and ace competitive tests, fail to perform relatively simple tasks such as repairing a defective appliance or gadget, he replied that failure to identify problems was the prime deterrent, mainly caused by lack of familiarity with and stimulus for practical implementation.

As regards construction, he asserted that here the identification of requirements was the only step that most Indian students could soundly do owing to their familiarity with the structure and function of the components, but putting them together – that is, the assembly – would prove insurmountable for most of them, given the academic focus of the course.

He suggested that the Indian government ought to split electronics and communications into specific industrial utility-oriented branches.

Indian electronic-engineering education suffers the corrective-misinterpretation irony – despite the bulk of the syllabus being dedicated to foundational, classical devices, the student’s practical familiarity remains shallow owing to focus on objective, factual knowledge, and straightforward skills such as enlistment rather than insights, theory-application correlation, and critical-thinking-provoking case studies.

“If the Indian government thinks it’s preparing an electronics-engineering workforce to compete with China, they’re as effective as a defense force that knows the parts, operation, and assembly of their rifles, but have seldom pulled the triggers, and have never partaken in a field drill before being dispatched to the warfront. I was a part of the National Cadet Corps at my college, and I think I would wield a gun better than a soldering iron,” he said with a smirk.

“I would rather serve in the capacity of what I know to operate with a single day of demonstration and trial than something that I have only known from diagrams and texts in handbooks and white papers,” he added.

“We need a change of attitude. We do things for the sake of it, neither out of passion nor out of concern for pragmatism. It all begins with middle-school students presenting market-bought circuits as part of their electronics projects, having been imparted neither conceptual nor utilitarian knowledge in the course of their textbook-exclusive education.

“The lack of theoretical foundation as well as a problem/solution-based innovative mindset sticks, persisting well after they enter the workforce. In the rare event that a college requires the students to submit a circuit-based project, students often resort to commissioning them to specialist shops in the city to assemble them on their behalf.

“The technicians who make a living out of fabricating these college projects often have a high-school or even lower maximum level of education, yet would prove more useful in the workforce than these aimless graduates who have had lakhs [hundreds of thousands of rupees] invested in their education.”

Electronics and computer engineering require qualitatively similar mathematical and logical proficiencies and similar algorithmic pedagogical approaches. Thus the mutual contrast indeed is indicative of a critical flaw or deficiency in the manner that electronics education and training is imparted in India. 

“A Review of Engineering Education in China: History, Present and Future,” a 2017 paper published by the American Society for Engineering Education reviewing China’s prowess in engineering education, states, “With the rapid development of Chinese industrialization, the education authorities and some schools have realized that the traditional teaching models cannot meet the needs of industrial upgrading and development.”

It elucidates how China’s educational policy planning focuses on timeliness, relevance, maintaining a proximity, synchronization, and intimacy with the industry: “At the national level, the National Medium and Long Term Education Reform and Development Plan (2010-2020) presented a major education and teaching reform program … to educate and train excellent engineers (Excellence Plan), which was officially launched in June 2010.”

The paper further sheds light on the said “Excellence Plan,” a strategy formulated by China to improve the quality of its technical education. Among other aims, it seeks to curtail the alienation between academic teaching and industrial training, thereby enabling students to achieve seamless integration of theoretical knowledge and technical experience.

“Excellence Plan is an important measure for China’s engineering education to serve the national development strategy in the new period.

“The task is to focus on industry guidance, school-enterprise cooperation, classified implementation, various forms, including: to establish new mechanism of training talent by cooperation between schools and industry; to innovate engineering education personnel training mode; to develop high-level engineering education teachers; to expand engineering education; to develop outstanding engineer education and personnel training standards,” it explains.

China constantly reviews, re-evaluates, and revises its curriculum to stay up to date with both national needs and demands, and global industry standards. Periodic benchmarking is also carried out. Project-based learning is also increasingly becoming an integral part of the teaching process in the country’s institutions.

There is another oft-overlooked reason for India’s lagging behind: lack of career counseling and orientation at the scholastic level. There is no systematic pre-college aptitude-identification, consultancy, advisory, or alignment amenities or opportunities available to Indian students. Most engineering-aspirants follow a sheep-herd mentality and go about the rat race.

In India, branches of engineering studies are chosen based on one’s entrance-exam score, and electronics ranks at the top, just below computer science. This leads to several candidates blindly enrolling in electronics, a discipline they know nothing of, spare a single chapter they studied at the intermediate level.

Many of them do not have an aptitude for the discipline and the choice is all in all blindly, dryly, and inflexibly quantitative. This deals double damage. It dilutes the workforce with uninterested learners upon whom four years of specialized education is wasted only for them to take up an IT or managerial role, and second, having the discipline or field they had an aptitude for, miss on a potential committed participant.

It is not necessarily wrong for India to have an underdeveloped electronics sector, as long as we have a teeming information-technology and computing sector. But then, it is quite a waste of resources and time on the part of everyone to teach electronics engineering to thousands of students each year at premier governmental and government-funded institutions, only to have a majority of them self-learn programming and computer science to join IT and software firms or seek other alternatives.

India is force-feeding and fattening up a portion of its poultry only to have them lay eggs.

One hopes that the government’s “self-reliance” call will be holistic enough to extend to gadgets and gizmos, and one day Indians will be proudly running Indian-made software and applications on Indian-made devices. One hopes that, one day, the culmination of Indians’ engineering education will be measurable by their ability to create, mend, and innovate than counting the legs of an archaic piece of hardware.

Perhaps, one day, the underfunded clubs and societies in India’s technical institutions will be able to become truly as “self-reliant” as the administration wants them to be.

This is the concluding article of a two-part series. To read Part 1, click here.

Pitamber Kaushik is a journalist, columnist, writer, independent researcher, haiku poet, and verbal ability trainer. His writings have appeared in more than 400 publications and outlets across 70+ countries, amounting to over 700 published pieces. He is currently based out of Xavier School of Management (XLRI Jamshedpur).