A more rigorous training in core skills is required to boost the engineering talent in the country, instead of a varnish of ‘soft skills’, says Ajit Balakrishnan.
Whenever talk veers around to education standards in our engineering colleges and polytechnics you can rest assured that at least one speaker will hold forth on why all the discourse about improving mathematical skills or laboratory practice is a waste of time and why the real thing that students nowadays lack and need to be taught are 'soft skills'.
I invariably feel compelled to raise my hand and ask the speaker what she means by 'soft skills'.
And I invariably get the answer, that soft skills are different from 'hard skills' like mathematical expertise, mastery of the subject, the skill to complete laboratory or work shop assignments.
When I press further I am told that 'soft skills' mean things like an ability to get on with co-workers, fluency in English, and even (and this is when I have to control myself and not throw a chair at the speaker) 'grooming'.
I re-gain my self-control only by reminding myself of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s characterisation of the educational system.
The primary role of the educational system in any country, says Bourdieu, is to reproduce the cultural habits of the social groups dominant in that country.
These powerful social groups, he says, have the power to impose meanings and to impose them as legitimate. They are able to define their own cultural practices as worthy of being sought and possessed.
These practices lumped together constitute, according to Bourdieu, a person’s 'cultural capital'.
Cultural capital, Bourdieu says, is made up of things like a person’s posture, his clothing, mannerisms, the books and movies he can talk about, the school and college credentials he has and so on, all acquired by being part of a particular social class.
All this helps powerful groups in society identify whether a person is 'one of us'.
In the early stages of a person’s life cultural capital can matter as much, if not more than, for example, his financial capital, the amount of money he has in his bank account.
Discussions about 'soft skills' also always bring back a flood of memories.
It took more than a decade after the Indian Institutes of Management were founded for their graduates to be considered for recruitment by the 'prestigious' companies of that time -- companies such as Metal Box, Guest Keen Williams, Brooke Bond (collectively and derisively called at that time, the 1980s , 'Boxwalla' companies who looked for in prospective employees credentials that they themselves had, a public school education and undergraduate degrees from a British university.)
Job interviews were often conducted at the Calcutta Club or the Bombay Gymkhana.
What they were examining in their aspirant candidates was 'soft skills' that they valued but they did not use that phrase.
The Indian soft skill chant came back again in the early 2000s when India’s IT services industry started recruiting en masse, first engineers to do low-level programming jobs and then staff for their call centre operations.
There was an outcry from the human resources teams at these companies that the Indian educational system was producing quantity but not quality and that what was missing was, hold your breath, 'soft skills'.
These 'soft skills' were quickly conflated with English-language speaking skills because that, understandably, was what at least call centres wanted.
How English-language skills soon became a requirement for computer programmers as well in these companies is a matter of eternal mystery to me but could also be the key to unravelling the 'soft skills' paradox in India.
My guess is this: the escalation of demand from the IT services industry was so sudden, rising from maybe 2,000 a year to 100,000 a year in less than half a decade that IT services companies took whoever they could get. Thousands of engineering colleges sprung up in the private sector offering a token computer science education.
With this token education, one should not be surprised that these students often appeared tongue-tied.
They were probably too scared to reveal the shakiness of their knowledge of the subject!
An acquaintance of mine, a scholar at New York University, who I am not naming because she is in the middle of her research on this topic, has a more frightening analysis of this English/soft skill conflation.
She conjectures that an entrepreneurial system has developed in India around English-language skills and that languishing English departments in Indian universities are re-making themselves to address this new opportunity.
She takes the view that this promotion of English could just be the elite consolidating their position by presenting their forte, English, as the most valued attribute in Indian society today.
One’s confidence to engage in a conversation with another, particularly a person senior to you, depends on how confident one is about the subject being discussed. In other words, the way to make our students more articulate may be to drastically change the way the core subjects of engineering are taught.
Maybe it’s time to replace dreary lectures on how to compute, for example, a linear regression with case studies which pose the dilemma of where to get the data for doing the regression, how to judge the quality of the data, and how to interpret and present the results of the regression.
This case study-based approach may have a higher chance of training students in judging quality of data as also the art of making convincing presentations of their conclusions.
And do more than attempts to apply a coat varnish of 'soft skills'.
Image used for representational purposes only. Photograph: Andres Stapff/Reuters.