Thinking Like An Indian Parent (Part 2)

In Part 2 of an editorial, Professor Pushkar of BITS Pilani-Goa explains why Indian parents are so interested in sending their children to engineering colleges.

AsianScientist (Nov. 25, 2013) – In part one of my op-ed, I considered the possibility that India’s higher education crisis has created high levels of anxiety among parents which is in turn responsible for their insistence that their children study engineering. Clearly, however, other factors are at play. For example, while parents may be to blame for pushing their children towards engineering, it is also likely that nearly-grown up children choose to take the path of least resistance and/or believe that while their passion and interest may lie in other areas, an engineering degree is a safer option.

However, I stay focused on parents and on two other factors which influence their decisions: the media and the marginalization of humanities and social sciences. This is not to suggest that other factors are not at play; however, together with the severe crunch in the number of good quality colleges, I believe that these two factors are big drivers of the engineering craze in India.

The Indian media

The love for engineering degrees among Indians is, without doubt, also fueled by the media. All national newspapers report widely on top salaries and average salaries offered to engineering and management graduates, especially from elite institutions such as the IITs and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). The message in these reports is loud and clear: the path to prosperity and a good life begins with a degree in engineering and is fulfilled by following it up with a business degree. India’s business schools, quite unsurprisingly, are swarming with engineering graduates. At IIM-Ahmedabad, India’s leading business school, over 96 percent of incoming students are engineering graduates.

Reading the newspapers, one gets the impression that engineering and business graduates rule the world. They perhaps do. According to data collected by WealthInsight and Spear’s, engineering degrees produce the most millionaires, followed by degrees in business, law, accounting, and finance. However, whether in India or elsewhere, the numbers of those who are flying high is much smaller than may seem from such reports.

Every year, Indian magazines prepare rankings of the top 100 liberal arts and science colleges, management schools, engineering colleges, law schools and so on. While the rankings game has become popular worldwide, the exercise is rather meaningless in the Indian context where it is a real struggle to identify more than a dozen or two good quality institutions of any kind.

Take the example of a recent listing of top 100 management schools in the country. If one asks around, the general consensus is that other than the IIMs and a handful of other business schools, the rest are below par. This is evident from reports on employability of business graduates. A 2012 survey found that only 21 percent of graduates from business schools other than the top 25 could secure a job. The story is not very different for engineering graduates. Based on a survey of 55,000 engineering students from 250 colleges across the country, a report found that only 17 percent of them were immediately employable in the IT sector.

Compiling a list of top 100 engineering or business schools in the country or providing information on top or average salaries seems to be a ridiculous exercise when only a small number of graduates from these ‘top’ schools are employable.

It is hard to say how much or how little do parents and students believe the feel-good reports on high salaries and the rankings of engineering colleges and business schools. One has to be mindful of the fact that most of them are from small towns and rural areas and more likely to be less informed than parents and students from larger cities. Their lack of sufficient and reliable information (or even plain ignorance) perhaps makes them more gullible into believing what they would like to believe – that the path to riches and a good life for their children lies via engineering colleges.

The marginalization of humanities and social sciences

Even though parents continue to push their children to study engineering, 37 percent of Indian students still enroll in arts and social science programs. This is double the number of students enrolled in science, commerce and management, or engineering and technology. However, it may be only a slight exaggeration to say that nearly all the students enrolled in humanities and social sciences are either those who performed poorly in school-leaving exams and therefore failed to get admitted to their first-choice disciplines, usually in the sciences, engineering, law, or something else; or women, whose parents often send them to college to earn an undergraduate degree in order improve their prospects of finding a suitable groom. It is only a very small fraction of high-performers in school-leaving exams that chooses to study humanities and social sciences.

The current state of humanities and social sciences has two main consequences. First, it makes outcasts out of those who choose to study anthropology or Hindi. Students who enroll in humanities and social science disciplines are considered “losers.” This discourages others from choosing to study what they may have liked to study. Second, because humanities and the social science disciplines become home to “marginal” students (i.e. poor performers in high school and women who are resigned to becoming homemakers), they become vast and nearly-permanent spaces of mediocrity. Given this reality, would you want your child to pursue her passion for history and archaeology?

Do parents know why?

Quite certainly, there probably are other obvious or more complex set of reasons why parents insist on nothing less than an engineering degree for their children. Perhaps, as one of my students put it, they “barely know” exactly why they want their children to study engineering. Or perhaps they are more enlightened than I have made them out to be. It may be the pitiful condition of higher education in the country that makes them stubborn about what their children should study.

If you are an Indian parent reading this essay, do let me know if I am wrong or right.

The future may be less of the same

There is some indication that the craving for engineering and management degrees may be coming to an end with parents and students becoming aware that what matters is the quality of college education and not a piece of paper conferring a degree in one discipline or the other. In states such as Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, where private engineering colleges have cropped up in scores to meet the demand for engineering degrees, it is reported that there are fewer takers for engineering courses than anticipated. Sensing a shift in demand for arts and sciences, many engineering colleges are reportedly planning to reinvent themselves as arts and science colleges!

Yes, those running these colleges seem to think that an engineering college can be immediately reinvented as an arts and science college with a bath and a change of clothes from Western formal to Indian formal!

A similar fate has befallen management schools with more than 150 of them shutting down due to a lack of sufficient demand.

However, rather than a lack of demand for engineering or management degrees or a growing demand for liberal arts and science, it could well be that parents have become more selective about the quality of education and therefore have not sent their children to study at shady colleges.

*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: Debarshi Ray/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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