Why India should go beyond engineering and diversify with liberal arts education?

Here is an excerpt from my opinion piece “Want to save higher education in India? Go beyond engineering” published in The Economic Times.

In last 15 years, the expansion of IT sector has provided relatively bright prospects of upward social mobility for many families. While IT sector had been integral to the economic growth of the country, it has also boxed students into linear career pathways that start with competing for college entrance exams. Students are told that they can “study whatever they want, so long as it’s engineering.

Engineering and liberal arts education in India

I’m also a product of the factory line of engineering education and followed additional expectations by studying business management and working in IT sector. Only after working in IT sector, I introspected and realized that I am a misfit. In search of my passion, I moved to higher education sector in 2003 with a 25% cut in salary. After working for a few years, I came to the US to earn my PhD in Higher Education and formally learn about theory, practice and research of higher education. Luckily, I had a chance to discover and follow my passion; however, majority of the students do not get opportunities to explore.

There is an urgent need to broaden student choice beyond typical pathway of engineering education. One such alternative is to provide students with liberal education that encourages discovery and exploration. Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) defines the 21st Century Liberal Education as “an approach to college learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. This approach emphasizes broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g., science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth achievement in a specific field of interest.”

Japan was a manufacturing success story of 1980s however, for last several years it has been under a constant decline. According to president of Shiga University, Takamitsu Sawa, “The plight of the Japanese manufacturing industry today may be traced to the excessively compartmentalized manner in which engineering students have been educated for the past nearly four decades.” He goes on to make the case for liberal arts education and asserts “that high schools and universities in Japan have failed to provide their students with opportunities to acquire broad knowledge through the study of liberal arts and humanities before teaching them technologies in their specific fields.”

A recent conference, “The Future of Liberal Arts and Science Education in India“, in Delhi brought together educators to discuss opportunities, challenges and approaches for building a stronger foundation for liberal arts education in India. I presented on the theme of “Going Global with the Liberal Arts in India: Insights and Experiences from around the World” at the conference and argued that acceptance of liberal education in India will require creating new metrics of success among families and students that go beyond engineering. Likewise, liberal arts educators have to realize that employability is one of the biggest concerns for Indian families and hence need to proactively bring more evidence about the economic case of liberal education.

In sum, the rise of IT sector and engineering education in India has boxed students into linear path without giving them a chance to explore and discover their passions. Concerted and collaborative efforts are needed in broaden student choices through liberal arts education. India needs to learn from Japan and save the future of Indian higher education and society.

Related Links:
Liberal Arts Degrees and Their Value in the Employment Market, AAC&U
Growth of Engineering and Management Institutions in India Stalls
Statistics on Indian Higher Education
How Many Students Graduate from India Every Year?
Three Solutions for Reforming Indian Higher Education