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    South Asia
     Nov 30, 2012


SPEAKING FREELY
India fails test of 'knowledge economy'
By Pushkar

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Indians are doing well in the knowledge economy. India is not. There is a misconception in some quarters that both are making rapid gains. The fact is that Indians based outside India continue to make impressive gains in the knowledge economy but India's achievements remain quite small. For example, a recent study by Thomson Reuters found that only 3.5% of the global research output in 2010 was from India.

The misconception that India and Indians are on the fast track on

 

the knowledge economy freeway owes much to the influential writings of Thomas Friedman on China and India in the New York Times. He followed it up by the best-selling The World is Flat (2005), in which India was announced to the world as a country that was producing thousands of engineers and scientists at a time when fewer Americans were enrolling for degrees in the sciences and engineering.

In positioning China and India as emerging challengers to continued American/Western dominance in the knowledge economy, Friedman glossed over the fact that only a small fraction of the thousands of engineers graduating from India's colleges and universities - public or private - are employable. Certainly, few (if any) of the engineering graduates of Lovely Professional University - which recently featured in a Chronicle of Higher Education story on the poor quality of private universities in India - are likely to be able to be employed as engineers.

The World is Flat sold very well in India. And why not? Friedman had good things to say about India and Indians. India has historically received scarce praise from influential Western commentators, so it is easy to understand how Friedman's ideas - that technology and innovation has leveled the global playing field so that countries like India can eat big cookies - were so easily consumed and celebrated. Outsourcing was going to be the solution to India's problems. Indians were great innovators and if - as Gurcharan Das put it - India's economy could grow despite the state, everything else was possible.

The same year that The World is Flat hit bookstores, McKinsey & Co released a report on the supply of offshore talent in services. Among its findings, only 25% of engineers in India were suitable for working with multinational companies. Not many Indians read it.

Very few Indians are also likely to have read Richard Florida's rebuttal to Friedman (Atlantic Monthly, October 2005). Florida found little evidence of a "flat" world. As he pointed out, India in 2003 generated 341 US patents and China 297. The University of California generated more patents than either country and IBM five times more than the two combined. Florida did find Indians and Chinese to be incredibly innovative but much less so in their home countries than in the US.

There are few signs that US dominance in the knowledge economy will wane, thanks in no small part to its open-door policy for Chinese and Indian researchers and innovators. According to a recent study in Nature magazine, 17% of the scientists in the US are Chinese and another 12% are Indians. It is quite probable that these Indians have a higher research output than India-based scientists.

The reason why India's contribution to the knowledge economy will remain limited is that its higher-education system is in a complete mess. As early as 2006, the Indian government's National Knowledge Commission brought attention to what it generously called a "quiet crisis" in higher education. Since then, more resources have been committed to higher education and massive expansion plans are underway to educate the millions of college-ready Indians. While there are some signs that things could change for the better, for now, the higher education sector remains "backward".

The country continues to produce thousands of graduates but recent surveys are hardly encouraging. India's actual pool of skilled, employable workers remains relatively small.

It is evident that India's colleges and universities are not teaching students what they need to learn. At the hundreds of public institutions around the country, there is not much teaching going on anyway. As a result, most students are forced to spend a fortune on private tuition or enroll at private institutions. Both at public and private institutions, the course content is dated - often by a decade or more - and unconnected to the job requirements of today. In addition, whatever is taught is not taught well.

Devesh Kapur (University of Pennsylvania) and Pratap Bhanu Mehta (Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi) do not mince words when they state that "the veneer of the few institutions of excellence masks the reality that the median higher education institutions in India have become incapable of producing students with skills and knowledge."

The skills crisis among India's young population is in large part due to pervasive shortages of qualified faculty. In a recent interview, Shyam Sunder (Yale School of Management) observed that: "Our best brains are selling soaps and getting into civil service" but "we are not able to attract them to a sector that is most important to us - education - particularly higher education." As a result, even prestigious institutions - like the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management - are facing a shortage of qualified faculty. As higher education undergoes further expansion, these shortages can only mount.

The illusion that both India and Indians are making gains in the knowledge economy is in part due to the relatively large number of high-profile India-educated innovators and entrepreneurs whose achievements are celebrated in Indian newspapers. It becomes convenient to ignore the fact that most are US-based and at best have a second-base in India.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Pushkar has a Phd in political science (McGill University) and is based in Gurgaon, India. He is a monthly columnist for EDU (http://www.edu-leaders.com/resources/magazine) where he writes on India's higher education. He has previously taught at Concordia University, McGill University and the University of Ottawa in Canada.

(Copyright 2012 Pushkar)





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