Can Indian engineering regain its former shine?

India has produced some of the world’s greatest engineers and scientists and graduates hundreds of thousands of engineers annually. Mughal Indian civil engineering led the world 500 years ago. Therefore, today’s relatively slow progress towards a modern, sustainable, industrialized society is puzzling. India’s national productivity, along with many other low-income countries, lags advanced economies like USA, Japan, and Europe by a factor of about 5, a gap that has hardly changed in many decades.

Recent reports blame the poor quality teaching in engineering colleges, and at the same time conflate information technology and engineering. Indian colleges produce unemployable graduates, they allege.

Recent research has helped show that even with the best teaching and curriculum in the world, Indian engineering colleges would still produce vast numbers of unemployable graduates.

Field observation studies have revealed how even the best educated engineering graduates can find themselves almost completely unprepared for Indian engineering workplaces. Many graduates work as programmers, earning more than they can as engineers. An economist would conclude they create more value by coding, indicated by higher pay, than as engineers, jobs for which they are supposed to have been educated.

While researching engineering practices in Australia, India and Pakistan over the last two decades I discovered several explanations for difficulties faced by engineers in low-income countries. Social culture nurtures complex inhibitions that can make critical knowledge sharing and technical collaboration much more difficult than in advanced countries. Relatively few knowledgeable sales engineers represent specialized suppliers so extensive workplace education opportunities they offer are out of reach in low-income countries. Misunderstandings on finance can drive inappropriate decisions, and we found that few firms trust engineers enough to provide accurate financial information. Hence low productivity in engineering enterprises leads to high real costs for services such as construction, manufacturing, electricity and safe drinking water compared with more advanced countries (for equivalent service and product quality).

Safe drinking water costs USD 50 – 100 per 1,000 litres across South Asia compared with USD 3 in Australia, including the economic cost of unpaid labour by women and children. Hence the recent announcement by PM Modi calling for engineers and startup companies to create new technologies to provide affordable safe drinking water services for everyone in India.

Research in engineering workplaces has shown how collaborative practices such as technical coordination, inspections and negotiations dominate the daily work of engineers, yet these practices are seldom even mentioned in engineering schools today, anywhere. Traditional assessment practices may be rewarding individual performance by students, and implicitly devaluing collaborative performances, as well as oral communication and reading which are essential for collaboration.

Even if these limitations could be overcome, sub-continental culture infiltrates awkwardly with technical rationality. Here is an account of one engineer’s effort to understand:

She had to negotiate a labyrinth of plots constituted by rumours, illicit acts, and transgressive collaborations in order to enact or exert her own agendas of personal survival, responsibility to her workers and colleagues, and a wider official accountability.

Young engineers might be more capable working with these realities if they could develop insights on human behaviour that today come from social science courses like anthropology.

However, such fundamental education changes will take decades, perhaps longer.

More immediate improvements might be possible by focusing on the transition from education to work.

One place to start could be a more appropriate definition of engineering:

Engineers are people with technical knowledge and foresight who conceive, plan and organise delivery, operation and sustainment of man-made objects, processes and systems that enable productivity improvements so people can do more with less effort, time, materials, energy, uncertainty, health risk and environmental disturbances.

I discovered a tiny number of Indian and Pakistan engineers who had learned for themselves how to nurture world-class engineering performance in local firms. India could be transformed if every young engineer could learn from their efforts. My next book, an introduction to engineering practice for students, graduates and early career engineers, will explain some of the insights developed by these experts.  

Photo credit: Martin Jernberg –


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