Tuesday, 3 October, 2023

Ways To Upgrade Engineering Education

Aamod Khatiwada

Engineering is one of the most important education streams in both the developing and developed nations. The prosperity of any nation largely relies on the quality of engineering education and human resources. We can see India’s recent growth in terms of GDP and infrastructures where the Indian Institutes Technology (IIT) deserves significant credit. The substantial investment, pioneer faculties, and research-intensive syllabus have developed the IIT students as not only real-world problem solvers but also as one of the best graduates throughout the world.
The Institute of Engineering (IOE) under Tribhuvan University (TU) admits the best high school graduates across the country. About twenty thousand high school graduates attend the entrance examination each year to get admitted to the constituent and affiliated IOE campuses. Due to the intense competition, even talented students fail to get an admission.

Theoretical knowledge
Engineering is a combination of theoretical concepts, practical implementations, and diverse research works. It is praiseworthy that the TU Engineering syllabus provides ample theoretical knowledge. In most cases, the IOE takes the final examination centrally, which covers almost 80 per cent of total grades, testing the student’s theoretical knowledge. However, the practical and implementation skills are left relatively blunt. So is their test. Most of the subjects consist of around 20 per cent of internally evaluated practical grades. In practical sessions, the instructor assigns students some lab experiments related to the theory class. But such archaic experiments performed using the antediluvian equipment are unable to synchronise the students with the current developments. This, in turn, deprives them of being able to handle real-world problems.
Most of the young and brilliant minds enter IOE with a big innovative dream but ends up only with a degree in hand. The university is responsible to make students’ every second count that they have dedicated to their course works. However, depending solely on the course works, the students acquire only the outdated skills. Therefore, most of them synchronise themselves with the present technologies either by investing a lot of time in learning them or by taking the professional courses at the institutes outside. This extra investment of time degrades their course performance and, they culminate their Bachelor’s with the relatively lower grades than what they deserved.
Here I have suggested for ideas to reform the engineering education in Nepal.
Firstly, we are relying on a hardcore syllabus updated eight years back, which subject teachers cannot deviate even a little. This is because the final examination – the most important grading parameter — covers the questions strictly from the uncompromising syllabus. Also, the time frame is so tight that if a teacher covers some latest but the out-of-syllabus contents, the dedicated syllabus portion may remain unattended.
So, instead of developing the micro-level syllabus, it is pertinent that the IOE designs only a high-level course guideline indicating the major and mandatory topics to be covered. Based on them, it will be the subject teacher’s responsibility to prepare the micro-level contents. This not only helps exploit the teacher’s talents and research interests but also allows him/her to replace the yearly repeating obsolete contents with the latest technologies and research outcomes.
Today’s world is about understanding the concept rather than memorising and writing it on the exam sheets. Therefore, giving high importance to the centrally taken examinations is pointless. To some extent, it is better to replace them with the internal evaluation marks. This permits the course instructors to use the semester hours and the grading specifications productively. For example, each subject teacher could allot creative assignments and the semester-long group projects, which familiarise the students to real-world problems and help them utilise the same working hours in learning the skills as well as earning the grades. Since the semesters are short, the subject teachers need to do some homework on choosing some striking and feasible projects by themselves, instead of assigning students to search for them.
Moreover, it is apposite to eliminate the unnecessary courses either by merging or by removing them. For example, Electronics and Communication Engineering students need to handle their final year project along with thirteen different courses (including two semesters). Such excessive loads divert students from concentrating more on their thesis and hence subtract the project quality. The final year project is very important as it can generate the entrepreneurship ideas, internationally publishable research findings, practically implementable real-world problem-solving gazettes, etc.
Another major problem, seen not only in TU but all the Nepali universities is the extensive student politics. Although the student unions may be true in their intuition about the quaint syllabus and politically biased university chain, providing such negative schooling to the newly enrolled students affects their education. In such an atmosphere, even the selectively admitted brilliant minds conceal the real problems and start blaming the syllabus and the university.
At most of the technical universities in foreign nations like the USA, the UK, Germany and Australia, the degree plan allows the students to pick between the courses, i.e. two students can complete the same degree taking the different course credits according to their interests. Such flexibility is essential in our university as well to get the most out of the talented young students. Separating only the major engineering branches is no more the suppleness that the students are looking for. The rigorous research works in the sub-topics of each engineering branch in the last few decades have already taken our world into the next level. The present sub-branches of any engineering discipline are wider than the entire engineering branch of past decades. Therefore, the university should further work in recruiting endowed young researchers as the tenured faculties at all the campuses, which give greater flexibility to students in choosing the courses.

Research hub
The university should assure students with employment opportunities for performing well in their course works. The engineering colleges can collaborate and sign the MOUs with the industries to arrange the job fairs, recruitment camps, and internship opportunities.
Finally, the syllabus that rewards those who memorises and penalises those who understand and innovate ideas can never produce the technological feat. The university should become a research hub, not a tuition institute. It will be a terrible waste of the brilliant minds if the selectively admitted students are still engaged in those obsolete and inflexible course works. The delay in making these changes will hurt the overall physical, economic and social growth of the entire nation.

(Khatiwada is a Ph.D. student and research assistant at Northeastern University, Boston, MA, USA. aamod@tcioe.edu.np aamod.khatiwada@ttu.edu)