The IITs are redesigning their courses to produce “good human beings”

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The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) don’t want their students to be known as just tech-nerds anymore.

India’s best-known engineering schools want the country’s most successful techies to be more holistically skilled. So the IIT Council, the governing body of the 23 such institutes in the country, has reportedly decided that subjects related to the humanities, arts, and social sciences will be given more emphasis in their undergraduate programmes.

Some of the institutes have already begun to redesign their core undergraduate programmes. For instance, IIT Kharagpur plans to introduce courses in music and musical instruments.

“Engineers can be more creative if they are given exposure to subjects other than core ones,” V Ramgopal Rao, director of IIT Delhi, told The New Indian Express. “Also we are not looking only to produce engineers but also good human beings.”

Well-rounded skills

For a while now, the IITs have been conducting non-technical courses in subjects such as economics, sociology, western philosophy, and psychology. Now they want to increase their numbers and encourage more students to spend time studying these.

“We’ve reached a stage where having such, almost parochial, view on technical education will not help. The world is changing and we need engineers who think beyond engineering,” said Narayanan Ramaswamy, head of the education and skill development practice at KPMG India.

Over the last few years, India’s engineers have had a tough time finding jobs. Many Indian engineering colleges are anyway infamous for producing thoroughly unemployable graduates. Of late, even students of the IITs, which are highly selective in their admission processes, are beginning to face trouble in the job market.

Therefore, taking this holistic approach to technical education could help.

“If I’m getting into this world and I know nothing but technology…I’m not successful; I tend to get nerdish,” Ramaswamy said. “For research, very clearly the focus is on collaborative research. Our IITs…lack research because of this. If they want to do research now, they have to go and collaborate with institutions outside.”

IIT alumni, too, believe that the little non-technical education they received came in handy in their careers. So giving future students more such exposure will only benefit them a lot, they say.

“What happens with joint entrance examination aspirants is that their mind is just one track—that they have to crack IIT. (Humanities courses) open innovative minds towards new fields, make them more creative and knowledgeable,” said Amit Kumar Agarwal, an alumnus of IIT Kanpur who now runs a realty platform

Besides, a basic understanding of finance, economics, culture, and society is useful as the graduate might end up working in any industry, said Satish Kannan. An alumnus of IIT Madras, Kannan co-founded digital medical consultation platform DocsApp. ”(It) gives you a larger view…People should at least take two or three such courses,” said Kannan, who himself took a course on how technology influences culture and society.

Moreover, the need to develop non-tech skills has become particularly important as engineers are increasingly taking to entrepreneurship in India.

Over a third of Indian startups are founded by IIT graduates and the number of students choosing to launch their own companies is increasing. They stand to gain from formal training in non-technical subjects.

“Today engineers aren’t using the engineering concepts (alone). The thing they carry from IITs is an analytical aptitude. That aptitude can be mixed with humanities to make education very wholesome,” Agarwal said.

Breaking the inertia

However, the IITs may find it difficult to do a course correction immediately.

“Mindset is a real challenge. (The) IITs have been run by technocrats and this is a different animal. The biggest challenge would be in people adapting to it and finding the right faculty and the management of IITs getting broad-based in their mindset,” Ramaswamy pointed out.

It would also have to be a balancing act eventually to ensure that students aren’t forced to take up multiple humanities courses.

“IIT (students) are mostly left-brain analytical thinkers and humanities can be handy with lateral thinking but keeping it an elective would be the right way to do it because it is not directly relevant to many students,” said Shreya Mishra, an IIT Bombay alumna, who founded rental portal Flyrobe.