Quality Gap Exists Between Elite, Mass Universities in India, China, Russia

Researchers at Stanford University have looked closely at higher education systems in Brazil, Russia, India and China (known collectively as the BRICs), which are funneling more resources than ever to higher education institutions in an effort to create world-class university systems. And although there is growing concern in the United States that these four countries will develop their own centers of high-tech production and innovation, fears that they will draw research, development and scholarship away from American shores is still premature.

Published by Stanford University Press, the book, University Expansion in a Changing Global Economy: Triumph of the BRICS?, is a multidisciplinary look at the growth of higher education in the world’s four largest developing economies. It analyzes the quality of institutions, the quantity of people earning degrees and equal access to education.

“In the past 20 years, university systems in these big countries have just exploded,” said Martin Carnoy, a Stanford professor of education and one of the authors. “So the questions are why did it happen and what are the implications? And specifically, what are the implications for the U.S. if the market is flooded with new scientists and engineers? Are we going to be overwhelmed? What happens to their societies if all the energy is focused on elite institutions?”

The study found that BRIC undergraduate education increased from about 19 million students in 2000 to more than 40 million students in 2010. The largest increase was in China, which went from less than 3 million to almost 12 million bachelor’s degree students during that period, according to the study.

Also, researchers found that BRIC countries are pouring money into their elite colleges in an effort to create world-class institutions and have their graduates compete with the United States and Europe. The elite colleges are much better for the focused investment, and engineers and computer scientists are graduating with similar competency and training as those from developed countries, the study said.

However, the less-prestigious mass institutions in these countries are receiving fewer resources. In 2009, 2.1 million of the 2.5 million total bachelor’s graduates in China matriculated from mass institutions rather than elite schools. In India, it was 2.2 million of 2.3 million. This widening funding gap between top schools and mass institutions has broad implications, the researchers argue.

The gap has the potential to slow economic growth domestically, deepen income inequality and create less social mobility, according to the study, which also noted that students who go to the mass institutions are not getting high quality, competitive educational experiences. Many of those students also get stuck with big bills as funding assistance is directed toward the elite universities, the study says.

“What happens, then, is they are doing a good job of educating students at the elite levels, but they are not doing a good job of educating students at the non-elite levels who are also fundamental for the economy,” said Prashant Loyalka, a research fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and one of the study’s authors.

According to the researchers, the sheer numbers of students graduating from elite institutions in computer science and engineering majors in these countries is high, but sustaining and building innovation hubs requires more than just the elite.

“In the United States, we have relied on competent second-tier engineers. They are the guts of our system. We need good students in all fields in these second-tier universities because the top-tier universities just don’t produce that many graduates. They simply don’t,” Carnoy said. He warned that this redistribution of funds away from second-tier institutions is a concern in the United States as well. “To an extent the BRICs have to do it, because they don’t have enough resources to go around. But do we have to do it? The answer is probably no. It certainly should be no,” Carnoy said.

Overall, the researchers found that significant challenges remain as these countries march toward creating universities that can rank alongside those in the United States and Europe, adding that China is doing well, but Russia and Brazil remain as question marks.

According to Loyalka, quality of education in India’s mass institutions is very poor. Despite its very good technical universities, he said, “you have a small proportion of Indians going to those, and the mass institutions are of really poor quality. The higher education system in India does not appear to be well organized,” Loyalka noted.

The researchers recommended that India should increase its focus on graduate education and, along with Russia, increase spending on research.