America may have legitimate competitive reasons to worry about the number of computer science and engineering graduates from elite Chinese and Indian universities – the figure dwarfs that of U.S. students with similar degrees.
But a new book by Stanford researchers and others says that the concern that these countries will develop their own centers of high-tech production and innovation and draw research, development and scholarship away from American shores is still premature.
The research, a multidisciplinary look at the growth of higher education in the world's four largest developing economies – Brazil, Russia, India and China (known collectively as the BRICs) – analyzes the quality of institutions, the quantity of people getting degrees and equal access to education.
The book, University Expansion in a Changing Global Economy: Triumph of the BRICS?, is published by Stanford University Press.
"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. Carnoy is also an affilate of the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
"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," Carnoy said.
The researchers approached their questions with the belief that societies, and governments, can be judged by the way they invest in and organize their public higher education systems.
For example, how well these countries create a labor force that is competitive in the information age depends on the quality of higher education. Whether people have equal chances to succeed relies on having colleges that are accessible to even the poorest students. And how effectively a country expands its university system may determine how successful it is at growing a robust economy and competing with the United States and Europe, the scholars argue.
"If you have economic growth and provide educational opportunities, you're perceived as a legitimate, successful government," Carnoy said. "So our theory was, if you can pull this off, if you can successfully expand your university systems, you are likely a pretty efficient government."
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, the study says.
The study 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.
Researchers say the elite colleges are much better for the focused investment, and the engineers and computer scientists are graduating with similar competency and training as those from developed countries.
But the mass institutions are receiving fewer resources, the study says, and that's where most of the students go. In 2009, 2.1 million of the 2.5 million total bachelor's graduates in China matriculated from mass institutions, not elite ones. In India, it was 2.2 million of 2.3 million.
Students read college application forms for admission to undergraduate courses at Delhi University in New Delhi, India. Delhi University has over 300,000 students and is one of the largest universities in the world.
This widening funding gap between top schools and mass institutions has broad implications, the scholars argue. The gap has the potential to slow economic growth domestically, deepen income inequality and create less social mobility.
Students who go to the mass institutions aren't getting high quality, competitive educational experiences, the study says, and many of the students also get stuck with big bills as funding assistance is directed toward the elite universities.
"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 FSI and one of the study's authors.
In absolute terms, the sheer numbers of students graduating from elite institutions in computer science and engineering majors in these countries is also high. In China, for example, the total number of computer science and engineering graduates from elite universities is more than the total number of such graduates from the United States.
But sustaining and building innovation hubs requires more than the elite, the researchers said. The engine of these new economies is the rest of the population – those that attend mass institutions.
"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.
The research is one of the first empirical and comparative looks at the higher education systems across these countries, and relied on in-country interviews, surveys, data analysis and classroom observation.
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.
China, the scholars said, is doing pretty well, but Russia and Brazil are question marks.
"Russia has provided the vast majority of its people with a high level of education, but it has lagged in terms of putting money into research," Loyalka said. "Brazil has a high-level of graduate education and research at its top-tier public institutions, and these institutions are receiving a lot of support. However, the vast majority of students attend private institutions, which are, on average, of dubious quality."
India, Loyalka noted, was surprising. 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 said.
Among other recommendations, the researchers said India should increase its graduate education and, along with Russia, increase spending on research.
The project began in 2007 as an interdisciplinary venture supported by FSI, and incorporated scholars in economics and international comparative education at Stanford Graduate School of Education, FSI and universities in Moscow and Beijing.
Several articles focusing on different aspects of the review also have been published over the past year. The most recent, which appears in the July/August issue of the journal Change, highlights the research on quality and quantity of graduates in engineering and computer science from the four countries.
Besides Carnoy and Loyalka, the scholars involved in the project include Maria Dobryakova, a research associate and the director for portals at the Center for Monitoring Quality Education at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow; Rafiq Dossani, a senior economist at RAND Corp. and former senior research scholar at Stanford's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at the Freeman Spogli Institute; Isak Froumin, a mathematician and director of the Institute for Educational Studies at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow; Katherine Kuhns, who received her PhD in the International and Comparative Education Program at Stanford Graduate School of Education; Jandhyala B. G. Tilak, a professor at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration in New Delhi, India; and Rong Wang, director and professor of the China Institute for Educational Finance Research at Peking University.
Brooke Donald is the social sciences writer at the Stanford News Service.