There has been a plethora of arguments put forward by those wanting to make mathematics and physics optional to study engineering, the chief reason being that it offers choice and flexibility to students. This may sound reasonable, but the trade-offs are huge and ominous. Engineering is a combination of applied mathematics, applied physics, applied chemistry, as well as the application of social, liberal, and other sciences. Any applied terminology needs a sound base. Removing the first two — mathematics and physics — which constitute the core, at the qualifying level itself is like building an edifice without a foundation.
An engineer is a professional who invents, designs, analyses, and builds complex systems, gadgets, and tests materials to fulfil functional objectives while recognising limitations imposed by practicality, regulation, safety, and cost. This is irrespective of his specialisation. There is a foundation on which all this is built. Can we dismantle it in the name of “choice and flexibility”? Or be attacked as stereotypes who are not willing to change? In fact, all the options, besides the core, that are being proposed are the ones engineers pursue later in their career based on their interest. The difference, however, is that they do so after acquiring a good degree that is strong on fundamentals. Innovations need strong fundamentals. Ideation to product development can happen, provided the right mix exists. What does choice mean when one does not even understand its dynamics?
Break silos, but within reason
The New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 is committed to breaking rigid silos between different streams and allowing students to pick subjects based on their liking, inclination, and aptitude — a welcome step. However, this only acquires real meaning when a student has a sound foundation and matured wisdom to understand the difference between ‘essential’ and ‘add ons’. The NEP also lays great emphasis on learning physics and mathematics even at pre-primary levels. If the issue is about breaking the silos, it can be achieved more effectively through building stronger, more collaborative relationships between departments and learning through project-mode. India’s earliest universities, be it Nalanda or Takshashila of ancient times, or Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and University of Madras in more recent times, had varied departments such as liberal arts, social sciences, physical sciences, engineering, medicine, fine arts, and many others, on the same campus. Students and faculty collaborated across disciplines to produce inter and multi-disciplinary research. In the name of breaking silos, we cannot weaken the very core of engineering education.
The other argument put forward is that this is also being followed elsewhere. University of California (UC) Berkley, US may offer an engineering program to non-engineering graduates, and the University of Sussex, UK may offer a similar programme to its students. For a start, there is a mountain of difference between the regular engineering undergraduate and postgraduate degrees of UC Berkley, or even University of Sussex, compared to the degrees that they offer to students from other backgrounds. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Columbia, University of Michigan, Penn State, or Cornell University have a history that span more than 100 years of producing robust engineering graduates. Their experimentation with other disciplines is highly measured and rigorous. Even then, the numbers of those who opt for such programs are at best very small. It is another matter that most of them seek new programs as a matter of interest and business opportunity, rather than to claim equivalence to their more endowed compatriots. In contrast, the changed AICTE position applies to all of its 4,000-odd institutes and a million students to boot.
Can such profound changes, that affect masses, be made in such a ham-handed manner without consultation? Are these comparisons to foreign universities offering flexible programmes then not odious? A better comparison would be contrasting Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) in India to a UC Berkley. Do we have an example of an IIT in India doing what UC Berkley does? Taking it one step further, can medical education also be opened up to students without biology in the spirit of this new found flexibility? Can a student study French literature without knowing the French language? The difference between core and electives is completely lost in the maze.
The bigger picture
If AICTE is focusing on outcomes rather than inputs, it is very welcome to do so. However, outcomes are a cumulative effect of a series of actions that include inputs. Certainly, physics and mathematics in schools and colleges cannot be mere inputs. Unfortunately, that they are treated so, is a commentary on India’s education system. If it is now sought to be institutionalised through regulations, it is even worse.
The new provisions spell out a strategy of bridge courses to tide over the issue. Thankfully, there is a tacit acknowledgment that mathematics and physics are indeed necessary to study engineering. But can full-fledged core courses, which are the very essence of engineering, be looked at as ‘bridging gaps’? A bridge helps us cross an obstacle, whether that be a river, ocean, swamp, canyon, or highway. Time will tell what exactly the AICTE bridge will actually bridge, for who can fathom what the gap will actually be?. If this logic is extended, as it will be, some engineering branches will completely dispense with mathematics, citing they’re not needed in practice.
A massive number of engineering institutes in the country — almost 4,000 of them catering to almost a million students — are all regulated by a single regulator, unlike in developed countries. The writ of AICTE runs large in them. A regulation that changed the teacher-student ratio from 1:15 to 1:20 a couple of years ago saw many teachers losing their jobs overnight. Its impact on quality will only be felt in times to come, for an adequate number of teachers has an important bearing on quality outcomes. Whereas IITs boast of a teacher-student ratio of even 1:5 in some disciplines, the rest of the system must make do with far larger ratios. The irony is that the system is seeking to facilitate this. Be that as it may, how does one assume that the institutions and universities would only admit students having physics and mathematics? Is the onus now on the students to make good what they lack? As we have previously seen with university students resorting to strikes and sit-ins for watered-down passing rules, this time round, we could see them resorting to even more strikes, sit-ins and watering down, citing the new provisions. Have we not seen several students fail in mathematics and applied physics papers in various semesters, even when they had a reasonably sound base at the qualifying level? What would happen when that base is sought to be made optional? Two things. Either bring down the passing standards so they clear them easily, or completely remove them from various semesters within engineering. How can the outcomes improve in a system that is designed to fail?
Notwithstanding the deafening silence of academics and scientists on the issue, one hopes that AICTE will do the required course correction. To keep India’s robust engineering education edifice from falling over, one not only needs the ‘acrow’ props along with timber needles like “choice and flexibility” to support its load-bearing walls, but more importantly continue strengthening the foundation — of which mathematics and physics are the core pillars.
Dr. SS Mantha is the former Chairman AICTE and Ashok Thakur, Former Secretary Education, MHRD, Government of India. Views are personal.