Higher Education

Engineered to fail: Are IT recruits untrainable because they cheat in college?

A computer science professor says a large number of students leave engineering institutes and IITs with very little knowledge of coding.

Reports of mass copying during school and college examinations in several states, including Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, are common. But a blog post by a computer science professor indicates that students at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, and other engineering colleges, indulge in it too.

Earlier this month, Dheeraj Sanghi, a professor at the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology-Delhi, wrote a blog post on the quality of the country’s information technology engineers, which corporate recruiters also seem to be concerned about.

In the post titled, CS education is poor because of copying, Sanghi referred to a statement by Srinivas Kandula, chief executive of information technology major Capgemeni India, at a business event in Mumbai earlier this month.

At the event, Kandula said: “I am not very pessimistic, but it is a challenging task and I tend to believe that 60-65 per cent of them [IT recruits] are just not trainable.”

Sanghi attributed this to alleged copying in engineering institutions across the country. The professor, who has also taught at the Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur, wrote that information technology and computer science students in India are falling behind because they have not learnt much in engineering college.

He wrote:

“I have always been amazed at the Indian software industry. That it can grow so fast and become so big despite the absolutely abysmal quality of education in our colleges…

“A lot of people have talked about poor quality curriculum, poor quality faculty, poor infrastructure, poor school education, and so on. I disagree. There is a much simpler explanation for this: Copying in our colleges, besides laziness.”

‘Nailed it’

Speaking to this reporter, Sanghi said: “In many colleges, even in some of the IITs but to a lesser extent, students either copy the code for a programme from the net, or one student writes it, and the others copy. The code is tested in the laboratory. If it runs – and it does – the student is awarded marks even if the lines are not original.” He added that these shortcuts are adopted as early as the first semester.

His blog post received many approving responses on social media.

Sanghi added that one reason for such laziness is that a large section of students do not join the engineering sector after they graduate. “They plan on studying management,” he said. “Their lack of skill is never discovered because they do not join the sector.”

GATE results

Sanghi said that he had always suspected that students were not applying their minds in engineering college. He said that his suspicions were confirmed when he once accessed Graduate Aptitude Test for Engineering data through which admission into post-graduate programmes of the IITs is regulated.

“About a decade ago, I had set the paper for the test and data for previous years had been shared with me,” said Sanghi. “The median score for the previous year was zero. Basically, I can train a five-year-old to do better than 50% of the applicants and all he has to do is submit a blank paper.”

In his blog post, he recounted that he was recently part of a selection committee to recruit programmers for a government department. He found that most applicants he interviewed, including those who had “several years of experience in industry”, could not perform a variety of tasks they ought to have learnt at engineering college. “These [were] all the programmes we ask our first semester students who have never programmed before,” he wrote.

(Photo credit: HT).
(Photo credit: HT).

Apparently, he gets much the same response while conducting interviews for MTech admissions despite the fact that only the top-scorers in the Graduate Aptitude Test for Engineering reach the interview stage.

Sanghi clarified that the entrance test data said more about the situation in second-rung public and private higher education institutions than the Indian Institutes of Technology because more students from non-IITs sit for that test.

IIT scandals

But Indian Institutes of Technology have had their fair share of cheating scandals, some of which seem to have resulted in a cover-up.

For instance, in 2011, a computer science professor at the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur, was suspended for reporting a variety of irregularities at the institution, including mass cheating in examinations. It led to a court case, which is still on. With the next hearing scheduled for Friday, the professor was reluctant to talk to this reporter but his lawyer Pranav Sachdeva said that one of the charges against his client was that “he spoke to the media about it”. Sachdeva added that the IIT had “tried to impose compulsory retirement [on his client] but the Delhi Hight Court put a stop to it”.

Similarly, in 2014, the Times of India reported that in a survey conducted by the student magazine of the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay, over half the final-year undergraduate students surveyed, admitted to using “academic malpractices” at some point in the years they enrolled in that institute. The institute’s authorities had told the newspaper that they were grappling with the issue.

Letting it slide

However, Sanghi said that most institutions he was acquainted with are not really grappling with it, as much as letting it slide. “Some colleges give students full 29 out of 30 in their internal assessment without their ever entering a laboratory,” he said.

There is a range of reasons for things slipping this far. “There are some teachers who just do not care,” said Sanghi. Detecting copying is easy – there is software for that – but ensuring that the issue is “handled democratically” is another matter.

“I call the students and if they deny it, I set up a committee,” he said. “The committee makes its recommendations and students are given a chance to appeal. I could straightaway decide on a punishment but that would make me a dictator. Conducting an inquiry is time-consuming and many teachers are more focused on their research.”

The system of gathering student feedback may also serve as a deterrent. “The entire class starts looking at you as an oppressor and students leave negative feedback,” he said. Though not all institutions take student feedback seriously, nor does it have the power to have a teacher dismissed, “sustained negative feedback over a long period can definitely impact promotions”, said Sanghi.

Even though engineering colleges can easily check copying if they wanted to by failing students who did not submit original programmes, there’s perhaps a valid reason why institutes hold back. “I know of one college which tried this,” wrote Sanghi in his blog. “Every single glass [pane] in all buildings were broken by the angry students.”

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of the story erroneously introduced Dheeraj Sanghi as a professor at the Indian Institute of Information Technology-Delhi. The name of the institution is the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology-Delhi.

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