Why it is Important for IIT Students to Opt for Liberal Arts, Multidisciplinary Programmes

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The admission system for entry into engineering institutions in India invariably uses an entrance examination to sort students into a “merit” list. A higher rank in this list enables more choices relating to institutions (which NIT, IIT, for example) and the branch of study (Computer Science or Mechanical Engineering). Students make their choices at the time of joining and get “locked” into the chosen branch.

Student interest and aptitude are usually sidelined when finalising the branch of study, says IIT Professor

Most students make these decisions based on the ones that “seniors” made in the preceding year, along with the “wisdom” emanating from coaching classes. Student preferences for institutions and branches are based on past placement statistics — like what was the magnitude of the salary packages for a specific engineering branch, how many people got placed — and the folklore about what choice will make multi crore packages more accessible.

It is also true that there are not enough manufacturing or core jobs available (especially in relation to the number of students who graduate from such branches) because of insufficient expansion of these sectors, and the onslaught of automation as well as artificial intelligence in displacing human labour.

A terrible consequence of these factors is the emergence of an academic wasteland full of disinterested students. Some hope to escape to the more coveted branches, such as Computer Science, by a possible branch change within the institution. However, this opportunity becomes available to very few.Students, therefore, just meander through their years in the institution engaging very little with their discipline, chasing extracurricular activities or learning things like coding, software development, accounting, etc – skills that are likely to get them a good non-core job.

Therefore, it is not surprising that barring a few departments like Computer Science and, to an extent, Electrical engineering, a majority of students are taking up non-core jobs or those not related to their engineering branch.

Our recent paper shows this to be true for IIT Bombay – and by extension for other IITs and other engineering institutions. In such a situation, the government and institutions have to do a lot in terms of restructuring engineering education by creating highly flexible curricula.

This will enable students to optimize their course choices across interests, desired skills and core domain knowledge. In any case, an increasing number of job profiles now also demand multidisciplinary exposure.

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