Excellence in education depends on the quality of mentorship; not on the size or location of campuses. To improve, faculties should be made bigger, and recruitment yardsticks should focus on quality and not quantity.
The core functions of an engineering school are to:
- guide students along as they inquire and discover their interests in science and engineering;
- engage students with the interactions between technology, society, economics and the environment;
- prepare students for working careers as designers and gadget-makers, but also as entrepreneurs;
- invent new gadgets and discover new science, and enmesh all of these activities with local developmental needs.
- Overall, education at the higher secondary and college levels is really a nourishment that society produces to meet and bless the intense energies of young adults.
- A lack of language and study skills causes some students to falter. Anecdotally, about a quarter of the incoming undergraduates need extra training and confidence-building measures in using the English language. Because the admission system is a testocracy, almost all the incoming students need to be dissuaded away from a mindset that focuses on strategic maximisation of points on multiple choice questions, and instead need to be goaded toward free inquiry and whole-problem tackling.
- A key problem in most engineering colleges is that the students should not only become skilled engineers but should also train to speak and write clearly.
Helping the new entrants
- The solution at many IITs has been to set aside time and resources towards initiating incoming students into college level education. This phase also breaks the ice between students and faculty, making it easy for the students to get in touch with their teachers. This useful programme requires time and mentorship effort from faculty members.
- The curriculum should include courses from a design and innovation stream, which includes a mandatory socio-technical practicum.This particular course has seen significant enrolment of visiting international students.
- A substantial final year project can be nourishing and fulfilling for anyone completing an academic degree, because it presents an opportunity for focused work bringing together different strands of knowledge and skills on a concrete problem.
Sadly, at many IITs, including the “crown jewels”, this final project is no longer mandatory. One of the key reasons for this regression is that the student strength has been increased without an accompanying, proportionate increase in faculty strength.
For all these reasons, and because our faculty salaries are lower than the international norms, it makes sense to hire many more faculty members than we do now.
Recruitment and retention
There are two existing problems with recruiting and retaining faculty members; both are self-made, and both can be solved.
- The first problem is that not enough faculty members are hired, and that those hired are burdened with additional tasks such as running the canteen, etc.
- The second problem is that of inconsistency and groupthink in the hiring committees. Typically, recruitment has two stages: shortlisting by the hiring institute, and an interview in front of a panel that consists of mostly professors from outside the hiring institute.
- If at the first stage, the shortlisting is done mechanically, then good and sometimes even excellent candidates can be weeded out. In specific, if shortlisting is done on the basis of the number of papers, size of grants won and the like, then those hired may be mediocre, paper-manufacturing mills. A better alternative is possible by reversing the existing two stages in recruitment, and explicitly flagging quality as a merit.
- The external experts should prepare a short shortlist, and then the local hiring committees should attempt hiring from within this shortlist.
- The applicants should be required to submit information demonstrating the best aspects of their work.
- Each applicant should be asked to provide, in addition to their full curriculum vitae, their two best research publications, and their two best pedagogic materials such as a homework assignment or examination.
- The external professors could prepare a shortlist based solely on the two best publications and sample pedagogic materials. The statistics of outcomes of the external expert assessments can also supply clearer indications, of whether or not there is really a shortage of qualified applicants.
- Remoteness is not a hindrance to excellence. Cornell University is located in the heart of rural New England, and has been excellent from even before the Internet age. And Cornell has a thriving start-up scene, even though the campus is not surrounded by industries.
- Japan’s newest world class University, the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University, is in the most remote corner within its territory, Okinawa island.
In the coming post-COVID-19 future, remoteness that is hand-in-hand with connectedness may even attract start-ups.