Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The final year project

A revolution was unleashed in engineering education (and for other professional courses, too) sometime in the eighties. A large number of private colleges were allowed to offer engineering courses; they didn't get any government funding -- hence the name self financing colleges. These were pioneered by Karnataka, and one seems to find one of them every other kilometer along any highway! There are so many of them, in fact, that some 400,000 to 500,000 students graduate with engineering degrees every year. That's a large increase, and considering that it took place in under 25 years is quite amazing.

Let's just separate our colleges into 'good' and 'bad' ones, irrespective of whether they are government colleges or private ones; the good have well trained faculty with high qualifications, using excellent, well equipped lab facilities, and the bad ones are just the opposite. Evidently, the bad ones greatly outnumber the good ones.

There was a discussion sometime ago in CNBC with participants from several sectors: engineering, software, head hunters. The guy from Ma Foi gave interesting statistics: among our engineering colleges, only a small percentage are in the 'first tier', and a larger percent of them are in the 'second tier' (I don't remember the exact figures here), but nearly 60 to 65 percent are in the 'third tier'. There is very little demand for the students coming out of these third tier colleges; these are the students who end up unemployed for sometime even in a booming market.

In this scenario, the companies scramble to hire those from the the top 40 percent or so of the colleges; and this competition is brutal indeed. This explains -- partly -- the soaring salaries, and a large number of unemployed engineers.

Given the huge demand for professional degrees, and given that the good colleges are so few, you will find reasonably good students in both types of colleges. This leads to a curious result: in terms of pass percentages, and high scorers, the bad ones don't do so badly after all!

But there is one area where there is a real difference between the good and the bad colleges. It is in the much dreaded final year projects. In good colleges, much of it is done in-house. One only needs good equipment, lab staff, a good library, enthusiastic teachers who encourage students to work on interesting ideas -- the kind of things good colleges have. If you study in a bad college, you are simply thrown out into the big bad world, and you start your search for a project.

These newbie adults get an education about how the world really works. Some start writing to people in well known universities and companies for an 'internship'. Some visit major companies for the same thing. Only in extremely rare cases, they succeed. Some pair up with their classmates whose parent, uncle, aunt or cousin is in an 'influential' position in some firm; they do a 'group project' in that company. A large fraction of the students fail to land a project through any of these methods, and become quite desperate as they near the deadline for submitting their preliminary report.

Nature abhors a vacuum; some keen observers noticed these poor sods running up the stairs of engineering firms, and walking down the same stairs with dejection written across their faces. They saw an opportunity to make money, quickly set up fake firms, and took these final year students as project trainees -- these are very interesting trainees indeed! The trainees pay good money to get trained in these fake firms.

These guys -- I mean, those running the fake firms -- are good fellows. They would make working prototypes of various gadgets or programs (automatic door opener! remote control for microwave ovens! an account management solution for a financial institution!), together with a 'project report' that is so authentic that it would be poorly written and have all kinds of mistakes. After all, if the student turns in a near flawless report, and -- an entirely likely scenario -- gets caught, there may be an investigation!

What is the point of all this? According to the Economic Times, this trend has percolated down to school going children. It has all the elements of the above story, only miniaturized. Sure, what ET is reporting is only a small trend, practiced by school kids with some cash to spare -- a rare breed. Nevertheless, it is a bad one, and it is a pity that these things get institutionalized at such a young age.


  1. Badri said...

    I have seen some of these reports myself. Engineering colleges as well as MBA colleges (complete fake project reports with completely fake market survey, detailed analysis of the faked survey data, summarised observations based on the analysis and what not!) - quite shocking.

    At the same time, I notice that some very decent projects come out of Madras based self financing engineering colleges as well, in Mechanical Engineering.

  2. Abi said...

    Badri: I am sorry if I have given the impression that all the self-financed colleges are bad. That was not my intention at all. My first paragraph was a general introduction to the number of colleges. I too know of SF colleges where some original -- and very challenging -- projects are done; further, we read about some of the interesting and innovative UG projects in the newspapers all the time.

    I knew about fake project reports in engineering. I am surprised by fakery in MBA projects too!

    When real projects are done under the skilled supervision of capable faculty, some interesting innovations do arise; even more importantly, the students get to know the real life complications, and the kinds of compromises one has to make in achieving a working prototype. Some of my peers who actually worked on making a gadget during their UG days have always spoken very excitedly about their experience. Sadly, many our present day colleges go through 'the project' as a university-imposed chore.