The China versus India story continues to be re-told since the topic first became a cottage industry among academics and commentators just over a decade ago. Most comparisons between the two countries are based on hard economic issues; occasionally, however, some accounts discuss the state of health, environment and education, including higher education.
China and India have enormously huge higher education sectors. China’s is the largest and India is third, in terms of number of enrolments. Both countries also have a relatively small number of elite institutions — such as the IITs, the IIMs and central universities in India and around 100 research universities such as Peking University and Tsinghua University in China — which dwarf other institutions in terms of State funding and support and in the quality of education.
Large numbers of Chinese and Indian students also continue to head abroad for higher education. The migration of an increasing number of students to private universities and to the West is in part driven by growing prosperity but also by the inability of the State to build new institutions at a rapid pace and to maintain quality at public institutions.
China placed six universities in the top 200 (and 32 in the top 500) in the Academic Ranking of World Universities 2014 — considered by many experts to be more accurate than the rankings by QS and THE — prepared by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Only the Indian Institute of Science finished in the top 500 at 327.
China’s success in raising several world-class universities goes back to 1995 when it launched Project 211 to develop 100 universities. Supported by massive government funding, these universities hired the most competent academics from China and also well-established academics from the Chinese diaspora in the US and elsewhere.
China’s lead over India is also large in terms of patents filed. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, in 2013, China filed 825,136 patent applications to India’s 43,031.
To the extent that it is elite institutions that are at the forefront of knowledge production and innovation, the India-China gap in higher education should be a cause for concern. If left unattended, this gap will impact on the economy, defence and other areas, in the coming years.
China has surged ahead by making a concerted effort to elevate its elite institutions to world-class status, perhaps at the expense of the majority of its universities. The Chinese appear to have realised that improving overall quality across the higher education sector is a humongous task which must come second.
India’s policymakers appear to be either lacking in clarity or seem far too ambitious. The Universities for Research and Innovation Bill 2012, which intended to establish universities focused on innovation and research, has been buried.
Instead, the ministry of human resource development has cast a bigger net in launching the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan to address the problem of quality across the higher education sector. Scarce resources have been committed to building new IITs and other central government-funded institutions without sufficient attention to quality.
It is not surprising that India’s elite institutions have not made as much progress as China’s, leaving India trailing behind.
Pushkar is an assistant professor, department of humanities and social sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa
The views expressed by the author are personal