Thinking Like An Indian Parent (Part 1)

Professor Pushkar of BITS Pilani-Goa explains why Indian parents are so interested in sending their children to engineering colleges.

AsianScientist (Nov. 19, 2013) – In an earlier op-ed, I tried to explain why large numbers of young men in India pursue undergraduate degrees in engineering. The big push often comes from their parents. While some young ones are genuinely interested in the discipline, for many others the decision to pursue an engineering degree is substantially influenced by their parents.

It is easy to be critical of one-dimensional Indian parents for the restrictions they impose on their children. Why are they so insistent that their sons (and occasionally daughters) pursue a degree in engineering? Why not allow their children—who are nearing adulthood—to make their own choices? Why not help them by making the process of deciding what they should study more open and consultative?

In this op-ed and the next, I try to explain why Indian parents are so interested in sending their children to engineering colleges. While some of the reasons I identify and discuss apply better to relatively well-informed parents, others are more specific to the larger numbers from India’s small towns and rural areas.

Do Indian parents know all?

Indian parents usually fit the “authoritarian” and “know-all” categories. Still, it is not entirely fair to make villains out of them for insisting to their children that they attend an engineering college. As parents, they surely want the best for their children. However, the all-too visible higher education crisis in the country acts as a serious anxiety-enhancing trigger. It is partly in response to this crisis that they go for the overkill: “Nothing doing son! You are going to get an engineering degree first.”

It is possible to identify other reasons as well to explain why Indian parents push their children towards engineering, which I discuss in part 2 of this editorial. Here, however, I consider the role of the poor quality of higher education in the country.

So many, yet so few

India is in the middle of a higher education crisis. While there are several dimensions of this crisis, one of the more important ones is the poor quality of tertiary education. Over the past decade or so, while there has been a much-needed expansion in the number of higher education institutions, few of them—whether old or new—offer quality education. The columnist T. N. Ninan has aptly summed up the problem as a case of “so many, yet so few.”

With some exceptions, the majority of half-decent or better institutions for undergraduate education are engineering colleges. As a parent, if I started to count tertiary sector institutions which are more likely to improve my child’s life chances, a good number of them would be engineering colleges. And the reason why I would persuade my child to pursue an engineering degree is not necessarily because I want my child to become an engineer. It is simply because an engineering college is more likely to provide a half-decent education than a regular college which offers undergraduate degrees in a broad range of disciplines.

The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs)—with nearly a dozen and half campuses spread across the country—are the most well-known engineering colleges but there are a few others which offer at least a half-decent education. In the public sector, the many branches of the National Institutes of Technology (NITs) have emerged as good, and in some cases, even better options. Among private colleges, institutions like BITS (Birla Institute of Technology and Science) Pilani enjoy a solid reputation, as do newer ones like the Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT).

The other options

It is not as if good regular colleges do not exist. A select number of colleges in New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Pune, and other cities do offer average-to-good quality education. However, their total number is rather small and the competition to get admitted into one is fierce. In fact, it is probably just a tad easier to get into a half-decent engineering college than to get admitted to a premier liberal arts and science college like Hindu College or St. Stephen’s College, both in Delhi. Furthermore, even good colleges have suffered from the broader decline of higher education over the past two-three decades.

Beyond the few good regular colleges, there is darkness. According to the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), 90 percent of colleges and 62 percent of universities are average or below average.

The actual numbers of below-average colleges and universities are almost certainly much worse. There are good reasons to not fully trust NAAC ratings and to be skeptical about other similar government organizations. For example, in 2009, the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE)—a statutory body with constitutional powers for planning, maintenance of norms, quality assurance, funding, monitoring and evaluating technical education—was embroiled in a corruption scandal. India’s Supreme Court has recently barred the AICTE from performing most of its routine roles.

Worthless degrees

The truth is that at most Indian institutions, students earn degrees quite easily but do not get an education. Some institutions have even made it legal to pay up and secure a “pass” degree. It is also not especially hard to buy a fake degree. As a result, there is such an extreme disconnect between degrees and actual education that employers treat the former as nothing more than pieces of paper. Employers have a simple message: “You have a degree, now take another exam or two so that we can figure out whether the degree means anything.” Reputed graduate schools such as Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, and others hold entrance exams to admit students and more central universities—those funded directly by the federal government—will do the same in the coming years.

At least a half-decent education

The way I see it, a half-decent education is the least that my child needs to have a successful career of her choosing. If that means sending her to an engineering college, so be it. After her degree, she can pretty much do whatever she wants. After all, a good number of students who attend engineering colleges actively look for and find careers that have nothing to do with engineering.

*This essay draws from a talk delivered at the TEDx Salon meeting organized by the students of BITS Pilani–Goa Campus on October 8, 2013. Thanks are due to Sushobhan Parida and Ashish Baghudana for inviting me to give the talk; the students who turned up for the meeting to listen and ask questions; and finally to Shaikh Sameer Aslam for his comments on an earlier draft of the essay. Also see the results of a very interesting survey conducted by TEDx-BITS Goa.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Bart Heird/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Pushkar is a faculty member at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) Pilani-Goa.

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