After the All India Council for Technical Education on March 12 issued new guidelines removing physics, chemistry and mathematics as a mandatory requirement for students seeking admission to engineering courses, a vociferous debate ensued in educational circles. Most of the responses have tended to focus on why mathematics is central to undergraduate engineering education – or not.

However, in order to understand the AICTE’s decision, it is necessary to acknowledge the larger context of the expansion of higher education and policy directions in recent years.

Even as the new guidelines dropped physics, chemistry and mathematics as being compulsory, they also expanded the list of subjects students can take in the engineering college entrance exams. The rationale for introducing these new subjects lies in the National Education Policy of 2020, which called for multidisciplinarity, flexibility and choice in education.

Expressing the need to break the silos between arts, humanities, vocational education and professional education, the New Education Policy has suggested many reforms in higher education.

The reforms have three interrelated aims: increasing multidisciplinarity in courses, expanding the capacity of institutions and increasing the Gross Enrollment Ratio – the ratio of the number of students who live in the country to those who qualify for the particular grade level. As the National Education Policy urges, “By 2040, all higher education institutions shall aim to become multidisciplinary institutions, each of which will aim to have 3,000 or more students.”

Symbolic gesture

Multidisciplinary orientation and offering students a wider choice of subjects in undergraduate education are worthy goals, but at this stage they are mere aspirational and symbolic. A large number of India’s higher educational institutions are indifferent to the advantages of multidisciplinarity, its conceptual strengths and its methodological approaches.

In addition, the academic and creative realisation of multidisciplinarity is a distant dream for teachers, given that they face a variety of challenges: they are employed on short-term contracts and must deal with decreasing budgetary provisions, inadequate infrastructure and shrinking autonomy.

The revised guidelines, officials say, have been introduced as a measure of inclusion so that students from a variety of economic backgrounds can access engineering education. However, this claim does not hold true as several of the new subjects now included in the engineering entrance exams are not available to students in many of India’s school boards.

Students arrive at an examination centre for Joint Entrance Examination Main-2020 in Noida in September. Credit: Prakash Singh/AFP

Students in Central Board of Secondary Education schools have the opportunity to study 12 subjects out of the 13 that are listed in the new guidelines. But state schools offer only seven subjects on the new list.

With such discrepancies, the already uneven terrain of higher education will become harder to access for students from state schools, rural and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Since the new guidelines will encourage the enrollment of students who may not have studied some subjects that are essential for engineering previously, the AICTE has recommended bridge courses for them.

At present, bridge courses, tutorials and remedial courses are offered by many institutions for students who join college late or have learning challenges. Bridge courses have always been intended to be in addition to the prescribed course work for a targeted period, not to offer a parallel instruction.

Many times, bridge course are stigmatised as being only for students who are undeserving, lazy and who need to improve.

If bridge courses are to be the mechanism to handle instruction in some key subjects in engineering college, how will institutions guarantee that students from marginal backgrounds who are studying these subjects for the first time actually have adequate support? Have the new eligibility criteria been drawn up just so that institutions can show higher enrolment rates of students from marginal backgrounds – but actually setting them up to fail?

Flexible options

It seems clear that this snap-of-the-fingers decision to issue the new guidelines has been driven by the flexible “entry and exit” options suggested by the National Education Policy. According to the policy, the Gross Enrollment Ratio for higher education needs to rise to 50% by 2035 from the current 26.3%.

Courses of flexible durations have been proposed along with different types of certification – students who complete one year will get a certificate, those who finish two years will get an advanced diploma, three years will merit a Bachelors degree while four years will mean a Bachelors with research.

Given this context, it is important to ask whether the flexibility intended to help students from diverse backgrounds will actually serve them well? Has India created the conditions to do justice to educational access, multidisciplinarity and student success?

As a highly desired branch of study, engineering education has expanded a great deal over the last few years – becoming more inclusive even as it is ruled by profit. Expanding and democratising access to engineering education is essential. But flexibility and choice can only work when the system is robust. Otherwise they could perpetuate existing inequalities.

Shivali Tukdeo is member of faculty, National Institute of Advanced studies, Bengaluru. Chetan Singai is member of faculty Ramaiah University of Applied Sciences, Bengaluru. Aiswarya T is research intern, National Institute of Advanced studies, Bengaluru.

Views expressed in the article are personal.