The award of the prestigious Fields medal to a Stanford University mathematician of Indian origin, Akshay Venkatesh, four years after Manjul Bhargava won the coveted award has once again led to the familiar lament about India’s lack of academic talent and its scarcity of world-class institutions.
Shortly after gaining independence, India saw the birth of a number of exemplary institutions such as the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). The initiative and ambition of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was pivotal in building these world-class institutes. The scientific research institutes set up at that time were as much the “temples of modern India" that Nehru envisaged as were the dams and power plants that were set up under his leadership.
Since then, India’s record has been less than exemplary even as other developing nations have raced ahead of India in nurturing academic talent, and in promoting research. China’s performance in this regard has been the most extraordinary. Even till the early years of the 21st century, the gap between India and China in terms of the number of top-ranked universities and in terms of the gross enrolment ratio in higher education was marginal. Since then, China has moved far ahead of India.
In the list of top 500 educational institutes in the world compiled by the UK-based agency Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), many more universities from China find a place compared with those from India. As per the latest rankings, 22 Chinese universities found a place in the top 500 list as compared to 9 from India.
The gap between India and China is also visible in the number of cited research publications and their impact.
One of the reasons why Indian institutes often don’t make it to the list of top-ranked ones is the low level of research output, which is often an important metric in most university rankings.
“Most PhD students are not trained to work independently on a dataset, complete the analysis, and…have little exposure to different softwares for testing their hypotheses," wrote Rahul Sheel and Neharika Vohra in a 2014 paper focussing on academic research among management scholars in India.
In stark contrast, China has made a concerted effort to revamp its higher education sector since the late 1990s as part of its five-year plans. It increasingly focussed on research and gradually outstripped the US in awarding doctorates.
While Chinese universities relied on state funding initially, they were able to diversify their sources of funding, raising funds from other sources including tuition fees from student, profits from university-sponsored enterprises and consultancies, and philanthropic donations, a 2015 research paper by Devesh Kapur of University of Pennsylvania and Elizabeth Perry of Harvard University pointed out. Increased resources also allowed China to raise enrolment rates in higher education, overtaking India in the early 2000s.
To be sure, the massive ramp-up of China’s higher education system is not without its warts, and has come under criticism from scholars who argue that quality of research has been compromised to produce greater quantity.
Nevertheless, China’s higher education system has allowed it to amass a visible lead over India in most quantifiable metrics, ranging from the number of ‘world-class’ institutes to research citations to patent filings.
The Indian government is understandably trying to play catch-up. Last month, it granted “institute of eminence" (IoE) status to six institutions—three public and three private, including the yet-to-be-built Jio Institute. However, the move has attracted criticism not just for leaving out deserving universities from the list but also the low scale of the government’s ambition. The financial outlay involved is much less than what most world class universities typically spend on research alone.
By global standards, the overall spending on R&D (research and development) in India is low. And yet, it relies largely on government support.
Unlike in the West and in other Asian economies, the culture of philanthropic endowments from alumni and from corporate sponsors is yet to pick up in India. The scale of public-private partnerships in research also remains very small.
Given the strains on India’s fiscal resources, developing quality institutions and promoting cutting-edge research will be possible only with active participation from the private sector. However, in a democracy with profound inequality, the role of the government will be critical in ameliorating inequities in access to higher education.
Improving higher education outcomes will also depend on India’s ability to improve school education so that students enrolling in higher educational institutions are equipped with foundational skills.
The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2017 shows that most of India’s rural youth lack such skills. More than half of rural youth in India, aged 14-18, struggles with basic arithmetic, the survey showed.
As Kapur and Perry pointed out, “an important reason why Chinese higher education has galloped ahead of India, is that it strengthened its primary and secondary education systems first, which India is only now attempting to achieve."