All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), the apex regulator for technical education in India has dismayed the engineering academics by making physics and mathematics non-obligatory subjects in the eligibility qualification for undergraduate engineering degree aspirants in its latest approval process for 2021. The mandate is also given to the Universities to offer suitable bridge courses such as Mathematics, Physics, Engineering drawing, etc. for the students coming from diverse backgrounds to achieve desired learning outcomes of the undergraduate (UG) engineering degree programmes. Nevertheless, in addition to aforesaid, the AICTE delineates the respective State Government/Affiliating University/Board to decide the eligibility criteria for entry-level Qualification for different Programmes/Courses.
The prevailing eligibility qualifications for undergraduate engineering degree programme before the latest one of 2021 prescribed for physics and mathematics as the compulsory subjects in the secondary level examination along with a third subject from a specified list of subjects. The unshackling of the rigid entry-level eligibility requirements by AICTE is stated to facilitate those possessing the aptitude as well as the background knowledge in certain branches of engineering and technology but were constrained to pursue the higher studies due to stringent compulsions of subjects in eligibility qualification. The reliance is made on the flexibility envisaged by National Education Policy-2020 to the Universities to extend their support to such willing students to pursue a career in engineering and technology who were hitherto deprived owing to the barrier of subjects.
Despite the apparent intent to open up engineering education for all in secondary education, the education system has to assess the learning potential of the aspirants before terming them eligible for formal engineering education. Every institutionalized education process has a set of subjects to be taught to the students which they have to pass after examinations. The teaching methodology involved in the subjects of engineering curriculum expects specific knowledge and competencies in the learners as prerequisites as the ultimate goal is to roll out the competent engineering graduates.
Any lapses in prerequisite knowledge of learners might result in their difficulties to cope up with the engineering curriculum. It is not only disappointing to such beneficiaries but also incurs a loss of capacity utilization of demographic dividend available with the country. In a democratic framework, the numbers matter a lot and in the case of a larger number of those struggling to complete engineering degrees due to gaps in certain prerequisite knowledge, the pressure will eventually fall on the educational institution to help them secure a degree. There are umpteen instances, when the passing norms, repeated holding of examination, and other academic dilutions have emanated from the protests of failing students.
Specific eligibility for UG programmes
Indisputably, certain engineering degree programmes may be having specific eligibility requirements, but the much-sought cross-discipline higher education warrants basic knowledge of mathematical tools and analytical skills. Certain references are made to the specific eligibility requirements of UG programmes in textile engineering, biotechnology, agriculture engineering, etc., where also, the apparent perusal of the syllabi shows that the knowledge of mathematics and physics is required.
Another reasoning for the dilution in prerequisites of eligibility qualification relying on the diploma holders seeking admission to UG engineering degree under lateral entry. Factually, it is to be accepted that the diploma curriculum has adequate mathematics and physics courses enabling them to continue future learning. Thus, the knowledge base of diploma holders admitting under lateral entry cannot be compared with class XII students without physics and mathematics.
However, the differential eligibility requirements with prevailing prerequisites as per the respective UG engineering degree programme(s) will be a welcome move.
Thence, a candid assessment is required for ensuring that the change in eligibility prerequisites does not harm any innocent student who has never read the mathematics and physics landing into the engineering programme. Moreover, the need is to remember that for pupils in general, formal education gets built on continuous procurement of knowledge sequentially with series of prerequites for carrying it forward and not merely on passion or aptitude alone.
Affect on learning outcomes
While diluting the rigidity in the entry-level qualification, the regulator has very carefully directed the engineering education providers to ensure that it should not affect the attainment of Learning Outcomes. Consequentially, the engineering institutions have to shift their focus from the quality of input unlike their practice of using an aggregate of Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry, or another entitled subject in class XII for assessing the quality of input i.e. the engineering aspirants.
Probing the stipulated curriculum of UG engineering degree, the cumulative share of basic science courses and engineering science courses is found to be hovering around 30 per cent of the total programme credits. Admittedly the engineering institutions build engineering graduates after teaching them series of courses in program duration with a majority of them requiring the application of knowledge and analytical skills envisaged to be achieved in learning outcomes of physics and mathematics at the secondary level. Ergo, the conspicuous absence of prerequisite knowledge in the engineering aspirants is likely to make their pursuance of respective engineering degrees quite arduous.
The veracious reckoning of the dependence of output quality on input quality bespeaks of the inseparable connection between the two, meaning thereby that the better is the quality of admitted students, so will be the quality of graduating students in general barring the exceptions. Thence, it sounds rhetorical to delink the output from input from the academic perspective.
Further, the insufficiency of knowledge sought from undergraduate degree programmes will have a cascading effect on the quality of the postgraduate and doctoral programmes.
Feasibility of bridge courses
In the absence of a well-thought framework through a model curriculum, the apex regulator’s decree to the educational institutions for taking care of its move of unbinding the eligibility qualifications for UG engineering degree through bridge courses looks formalistic. The Indian model of engineering education has stipulated a period of engineering degree programmes duly populated with the courses necessary to achieve the respective programme outcomes. The consideration of prerequisites happens to be the foundation block in laying down the complete curriculum for such programmes. There are feasibilities of offering bridge courses by offering them before existing courses requiring physics and mathematics knowledge or by replacing some of the existing courses with such courses. In the former case, the students will be burdened additionally and make it difficult to pursue the rest of the courses with the same efficacy as compared to those who do not require such bridge courses. While in the latter case the dislodging students from some courses may weaken their professional competencies.
Offering increased flexibility in terms of freedom to students who choose subjects other than Mathematics, Physics and are from different domains might have practical difficulties in executing this model at entry-level to the UG engineering degree programme. Howbeit, the flexibility in the later stage of UG engineering degree is always feasible by offering interdisciplinary subjects with sound foundational engineering knowledge and it shall help achieve the objective of National Education Policy-2020. On account of the desired Graduate Attributes and Programme Outcomes of the UG engineering degrees, the proclaimed flexibility for admitting the students devoid of physics and mathematics knowledge seems paradoxical.
Looking at the employability of engineering graduates being not more than 80 per cent as per certain reports, the concerns for improving the overall quality are inevitable. The efforts for improving the quality of engineering education have been constantly pushing for various measures through a proper mix of theory and practical subjects from science, humanities, professional core, and interdisciplinary areas along with hands-on training, internships, etc. These are based on the premise of core competencies of admitting students that have been meticulously ingrained by the secondary education system. Unequivocally, the opening of engineering education to the students who have not undertaken even the subjects of physics and mathematics will limit them from understanding the prevailing curriculum effectively unless complete remodelling is not done.
The focus of the National Education policy-2020 for opening up education and making it multidisciplinary necessitates series of changes without sacrificing the quality of the existing education model. However, the integration of the experiences had from the successes and lapses of the existing engineering education is critically indispensable to make it much more productive and useful for the society at large. Undoubtedly, the changes are required for increasing access to engineering education to all those possessing passion for it, but sacrificing the fundamental requirements of such education demands a holistic view. Also, the exodus of students away from engineering education and the degeneration in its quality due to its sudden opening up in the country along with other reasons should be considered by the apex regulator for exploiting the full potential of youth for good of the nation.
(The views expressed are the writer's own)