AICTE’s Maths Problem: Engineering admission without maths, physics didn’t work

AICTE’s decision to make maths, physics optional for engineering didn’t go well. This year’s changes help recover balance, flexibility.

AICTE’s Maths Problem: Engineering admission without maths, physics didn’t work over the past one year, engineering colleges have figured out that they do need maths and that even Class 12 maths may not be enough. (Image: Shutterstock)
Sheena Sachdeva | May 30, 2022 - 6:10 p.m. IST
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NEW DELHI: In 2021, the All India Council for Technical Education’s (AICTE) Approval Process Handbook contained a startling change for those in technical education – studying physics and mathematics till Class 12 was no longer part of the eligibility criteria for studying engineering.

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However, over the past one year, engineering colleges have figured out that they do need maths and that even Class 12 maths may not be enough. They started bridge courses with mixed results, offered them to even students who had studied the subject in high school and found engineering “unmarketable” to non-maths backgrounds.

In March, the AICTE’s next handbook for 2022-23, partially undid the reform, clearly defining which courses have been offered to students without maths and physics and for whom they were still compulsory. In doing so, it may have finally found a policy that works that also allows institutions a measure of flexibility and freedom.

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AICTE’s handbook

Every year, the AICTE’s “Approval Process Handbook” sets out the guidelines and regulations for approving new technical colleges and courses. In practice, it also serves as the set of regulations underpinning technical education, detailing the different types of programmes allowed, eligibility criteria, and permissible admission policies.

In 2021, this handbook downgraded senior secondary (Classes 11, 12) maths and physics from compulsory to optional for studying undergraduate engineering, or the standard four-year BTech or BE programme that most students go for. Last year, this announcement was met with criticism. This year, the AICTE has partially rolled back the reform. Now, just three non-core engineering streams – architecture, packaging technology and fashion technology – will be open to students who have studied a combination of any three subjects out of a list of 14. Maths and physics are part of these 14 but not compulsory. Further, nine engineering and other technical education courses will not have maths as a mandatory subject at the school level in the eligibility criteria. These include agriculture, architecture, leather technology, biotechnology, food engineering, printing engineering, textile chemistry, packaging technology and fashion technology.

While the AICTE governing gave engineering colleges the flexibility to decide, most private engineering colleges did not implement the waiver to maths and physics for four-year engineering and technology courses. Some AICTE-approved colleges that did face challenges with students from non-maths backgrounds. The biggest engineering admission test, the Joint Entrance Examinations, JEE Main and JEE Advanced, included maths and physics as usual.

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Bridge to engineering

To close the gap between skills that the course requires and the students’ level of competence, AICTE had suggested bridge courses.

Hindustan University, a private university in Chennai, admitted students who didn’t have maths till Class 12 and introduced bridge courses for them. Sudalai Muthu T, professor, computer science engineering and head of quality assurance, said, “We introduced bridge courses for the students who came with non-maths background and who need some kind of learning support according to the learning outcomes of the engineering programmes. We customised the bridge course according to the curriculum.”

However, bridge courses are not new to engineering colleges. RV University, a private technical university in Bengaluru, has been conducting bridge courses for many years as it receives students under multiple categories, including merit and management quotas for its undergraduate engineering courses. Its teachers find even maths taught at intermediary school level – Classes 11, 12 – inadequate for engineering courses.

Sanjay Chitnis, dean, school of computer science and engineering, RV University, said, “We get students under different categories, some with higher cut-offs, some from management quota and others. We find that maths taught in 11th and 12th is not sufficient for technical courses like engineering. Students might get good marks because they are taught in a set pattern. But for engineering courses, students need different analytical skills. To provide these analytical skills, especially in management quota students, we conduct bridge courses so that every student is at the same level.”

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Although helpful, bridge courses form an additional burden, said Muthu. “The bridge courses are an additional overhead. They can help them up to a certain extent and students can clear subject papers. But it doesn’t help them achieve their learning outcomes. Real learning might not happen through these courses but they may help them to achieve some course-oriented targets,” he added.

“From the academic point of view, I strongly feel that somebody who hasn’t done Mathematics in intermediate, making them understand certain concepts of engineering courses like Computer Science through bridge courses becomes problematic,” said Rajeeb Sobti, senior dean and professor, computer science engineering, and head of admissions, Lovely Professional
, a private university at Phagwara.

Institutes like Hindustan University are trying to bridge the gap non-Maths students face, by providing extra crash courses. But students are overwhelmed by the curriculum and both students and teachers have to make an extra effort, added Muthu.

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Even if institutions were willing to offer them, there are few takers for an engineering programme among those who haven’t done maths.

“AICTE’s initiative last year was in the positive direction but practically it was difficult both from the academic point of view as well as the marketing point of view for engineering colleges,” he said. This became especially challenging because the institutions that set the benchmark for engineering education in the country – Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), National Institutes of Technology (NIT), Indian Institutes of Information Technology (IIIT) – had not abandoned maths or physics. In this scenario, private engineering colleges and other AICTE-approved institutions, such as engineering schools of universities, found it difficult to adopt the change.

Implementation problems

Most academics find AICTE’s decision on maths and physics last year was knee-jerk. “In the process of implementing the new National Education Policy, AICTE experimented without understanding the nuances and its larger impact. Both physics and mathematics are essential for any engineering course. While experimentation is rather welcome, institutes need to ensure that the basics of students must be clear when they are applying for such technical courses,” said SA Hariprasad, director, faculty of engineering and technology, Jain, a private deemed-to-be-university in Bengaluru.

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Muthu agreed that the decision was hasty but believes more consultation and time were needed. “As India is huge and diverse in terms of its education system, it takes time for uniform implementation. Even now some engineering faculties and institutes are not aware of the eligibility for admissions. After consultation with education stakeholders, AICTE must announce rules and guidelines well in advance and allow at least two years for institutes to implement,” he said.

Muthu also pointed out that regulators must consider the wider implications of such policy changes. “Based on these eligibility criteria, students choose their subjects for intermediate school level. If they keep on changing it every year, students might lose opportunities. For instance, if a student aspiring for a course has taken up a stream last year, but with new changes, this year, students cannot change their streams now. This creates unrest amongst people, especially at the school level. There should be a systematic way to implement these policy decisions,” he said.

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Balanced BTech

This year’s handbook clearly sets out courses for which maths and physics are compulsory and the ones for which they are not. In the process, it has achieved both more balance
and flexibility.

“This year’s amendment has been made in a good direction and has a wider perspective. There are several courses like biotechnology or chemical, which don’t require maths. This will help students who might have an aptitude but not have taken those specific subjects. The amendment should break barriers for students so that they can choose from a larger array of opportunities,” Sobti said.

In the case of courses for which maths is not compulsory for eligibility, the new regulations offer opportunity for flexibility and customisation. Chitnis pointed out that institutions can now design maths bridge courses that are specific to the main BTech or BE programme in, say, food technology or packaging engineering. “While a standard curriculum is taught in Classes 11 and 12, institutes can now design maths courses which are more specialised [and linked to] the core subject,” he said. “It has to be tailored in a way that students are not left behind in the overall curriculum.”

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