Only two percent of the scientists and engineers in the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) were from elite engineering institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT. This was revealed through a query under the Right to Information Act in 2014.

A news report at that time quoted V Adimurthy, Senior Advisor to Interplanetary Mission at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, saying that sectors like roadways and railways also did not attract IIT graduates.

The IITs were set up from 1950 onwards to produce “technology leaders who would build the industrial base of the country.” But subsequent developments make one wonder if they have fulfilled the purpose for which they were set up.

The IITs were modelled after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with facilities to study the core engineering subjects and also pure science, the arts and humanities. The latter were offered as elective courses which students had to get through to complete the B.Tech programme.

The idea was to ensure that those passing out of the IITs emerged as well-rounded professionals with an enlarged social vision needed for the development of a nascent India.

But the students of the IITs have used the bouquet of courses offered to them to branch off from the “core” engineering subjects to “non-core” engineering subjects and eventually to careers in finance, management and administration, says a study of the students of IIT Bombay done by Namit Agrawal, Sailakshmi Sreenath, Shishir K. Jha and Anurag Mehra of the Centre for Policy Studies of IIT Bombay (see: Current Science, Vol 124, No: 2, 25/January/ 2023).

This has resulted in India’s industrial units, scientific and technical establishments like ISRO, depending on the products of non-elite and less-endowed engineering colleges.

In ISRO, for example, an overwhelming majority of engineers and scientists are from non-elite institutions, the new middle classes and smaller towns.

Admittedly, there is a brighter side to this: It is indicative of a major social development that is nothing less than revolutionary. ISRO’s successes over the years are a testimony to the wholesomeness of this development.

ISRO rightly prides itself on the fact that it gives the top-most priority to financial prudence and that its satellite launches are the cheapest in the world on account of that. One of the reasons for the lower cost of ISRO’s ventures is the modest salaries for which its personnel work.

If money was a top criterion for its personnel, they would have sought opportunities in the corporate sector. Clearly, personnel in organisations like ISRO accord priority to a career in science and technology for its own sake, not for money.

Namit Agarwal and his fellow researchers point out in the Current Science paper that within a few years of the IITs’ establishment, graduating students were going abroad in droves for higher studies, mostly the US, and not coming back.

“Bain drain” was a subject of much discussion in the 1970s.

Agarwal and his co-researchers note that over time, the “external brain drain” declined. But it was substituted by an “internal brain drain”. Engineering graduates were taking jobs in India but not in the core engineering fields. They were entering management, finance, software, analytics, and on. Some even joined the Indian Administrative and Foreign Services.

Except for students in Computer Science and Engineering (CSC), a preponderance of students took up jobs in the “non-core” engineering sectors. In the 1990s, the Indian economy was growing and there were lucrative openings in the “soft” non-engineering sectors. Hence the choice.

Students in elite institutions like the IIT began to distinguish between “routine” and “creative” jobs. Shop floor work was considered routine and boring. And start-ups were difficult in the core engineering field.

The students’ choice was also determined by socio-cultural factors. Peer group, parental pressure and societal pressure determined choices. In the first place, young people got into engineering through a highly competitive selection process because the goal and the tough admission process had tremendous social value.

But once in the engineering college, they found that hard-core engineering was not their cup of tea. It was neither exciting nor did it guarantee a lifestyle befitting the “aspirational class” to which they belonged. Their interest in the core engineering subjects flagged, the authors of the study note.

The students were “disconnected” from their academic studies, especially in the core engineering subjects.

Agarwal’s study found that among students, those in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Engineering had the greatest preference for core engineering jobs. Students in Mechanical Engineering (ME) showed almost equal preference for core and non-core engineering jobs. But students in the larger engineering departments (Chemical Engineering (ChE), Civil Engineering (CE), Metallurgical Engineering and Materials Science (MEMS), showed a strong preference for non-core jobs.

The relevant factors in career preferences were: pay, career growth prospects and flexibility. Recruiters from firms in the non-core engineering sector “pitched competitive pay along with challenging opportunities for exposure to a variety of industries in a short span of time as the key benefits.”

Cultural, lifestyle and personality development issues also played a role in selecting sectors. The students valued opportunities for extracurricular activities, which were considered a must for personality development.. Around 54.4% of students mentioned the “culture” around the job as a key criterion. Non-core jobs were also seen as being more glamorous and therefore more desirable.

Students were also eager to get “responsibility” early in their working life.The glorification of these traits encouraged students to focus more on extracurricular activities than in academics.

“This led to many being underprepared for core engineering jobs requiring domain (or subject) knowledge,” the authors say.

Consulting, IT/software and engineering remained the major recruiting sectors, accounting for 40% of the jobs offered.

This increased the demand for non-core jobs and reduced takers for core jobs. Fresh entrants observed that core engineering placements were in low demand among seniors which in turn reduced student focus on core academics, the study found.

The huge non-core salaries – often accessible only to CSE students – had a great “signalling effect.” These set aspirational hopes and served to orient ambitions, the authors said.

Non-core jobs were attractive also because they required fairly “generic skills”, and were devoid of the burden of imbibing and keeping up with specialised technical domain knowledge, they noted.

Thus, students who had lost interest in the core engineering jobs, or those who assessed that they did not have any other option, opted for coding as a fail-safe option. A perception of easy entry into the job market led to many students opting for non-core jobs, the authors said.

Agarwal and his team raised the important question: Why is India spending so much on engineering training that is misallocated subsequently?

As a remedy, they suggested that “placement data be recorded and analysed every year so that rational decisions about the number of seats on offer in a given branch, the nature and extent of curricular changes, establishing multidisciplinary branches and improvements in the placement process, can be made in a reasoned manner.”