Do China and India Produce A Million Engineers?

Earlier this year, students would show up for class each day at the Jalpaiguri Engineering College in West Bengal—and find no teachers. The Department of Electronics, Computer Science and Information Technology had just one full-time teacher (it's supposed to have 20). Finally, in May, the students—who faced impending exams despite having had no instruction—went into the streets to protest. Eventually, the government announced it would enlist teachers from other schools. But that proved easier said than done: when administrators went looking for recruits at one of India's oldest educational institutions, the Bengal Engineering and Science University (BESU) in Kolkata, they found that it couldn't spare any teachers—it didn't have enough of its own.

Wait a second: this isn't what the picture is supposed to look like. For years, pundits and the press have been warning that the millions of engineers and scientists India and China produce each year would soon challenge the United States' technical superiority. Just a few months ago, the London-based think tank Demos warned in a report that "the center of gravity of innovation has started moving from the West to the East," and that China could become a "scientific superpower" by 2050. Indeed, the raw numbers are impressive. China cranked out more than 600,000 engineers in 2005 alone, and India produces nearly 500,000 technical grads annually.

But these stats only tell half the story. Many of the graduates can't find work, and corporate recruiters in both countries lament a dearth of qualified applicants. "Out of the huge number of engineering and science graduates that India produces, only 25 to 30 percent can be regarded as suitable," says Kiran Karnik, head of the National Association of Software and Services Companies. The reason? Underfunding and a range of other factors have produced serious educational crises in India and China. These problems could soon wreak havoc on their economies. To sustain their breakneck growth, the countries will need lots of high-quality engineers and scientists. Yet neither have enough reliable universities to produce them. M.A. Pai, who taught at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, warns that the "lack of highly trained people at the Ph.D. level in both sciences and engineering will be a serious setback to India becoming a knowledge economy."

For China, the problem can (at least in part) be traced back to the Cultural Revolution, when ultraradical Maoists paralyzed universities. Many students and instructors were shipped off to farms—if they didn't wind up in "re-education" camps. Higher education started to rebound in the 1980s, and in the 1990s Beijing launched an ambitious program to expand college enrollment. But in the process, standards slipped. "Once you get in, it's [too] easy to graduate," says Prof. Mao Shoulong of Renmin University.

Experts also complain that Chinese schools emphasize rote memorization, which often "detracts from the quality of education," says Mao, who believe China's system fails to teach practical applications or to instill creativity. "That's why students in the United States might not have good marks in class but can produce effective missile technology, while students in China enjoy good marks in class but might not be able to make sufficiently good missiles," he says.

Chinese universities also face another common problem: poor funding. Many schools must now support themselves largely on tuitions. "This makes some of them lower their enrollment standards," says Prof. Chu Shulong of Tsinghua University. And the model just doesn't bring in enough cash. At U.S. universities, tuitions run into the tens of thousands. "But in China it might be one twelfth as much," says Mao. Thus while many U.S. students enjoy comfortable dorms, students in China have to share cramped and poorly maintained facilities. Many colleges are also short on equipment, labs and classrooms.

India faces similar deficits. Pay for university teachers is pitiably low (it starts at about $400 a month), especially compared with what they could make in the private sector (more than $10,000 a month). As a result, says Madhusudan Datta, an economist at Kalyani University, "talent gets soaked up by lucrative offers from industry." To make matters worse, India's educational establishment (like China's) is far too rigid. A recent example from BESU is revealing. A few years ago, science teachers there began keeping their labs open around the clock so enthusiastic pupils could drop in at any hour. Their students responded in droves and a more relaxed atmosphere began to prevail, with students sometimes showing up in shorts—a common sight in the West but comparatively rare here. After several years of this experiment, however, the administration abruptly ordered labs to return to their normal schedule and mandated that students must wear trousers, shirts and shoes on campus. "It seemed as if the dress code was more important than rigors of study," says Biplab Kumar Sikdar, an assistant professor of computer science.

Adding to India's problems is a conspicuous lack of vision amongst the bureaucracy and corruption at every level. "All this has affected the quality of our technical education," says Sikdar. One result: despite the large number of new graduates India rolls out each year, it only produces about 50 Ph.D.s in computer science, about the same number as an average public university in the United States.

To meet their rapidly growing demands for trained manpower, more and more top companies in both states have begun taking matters into their own hands, creating in-house training programs. In China, the trend was kicked off by Microsoft years ago. And in India, Infosys leads the way with 16-week comprehensive training courses that cost the company nearly $5,000 per employee. "The biggest challenge for India today and going forward will be how to create a skilled work force," says T.V. Mohandas Pai, an Infosys board member focused on human resources. "And the government is not waking up to this fact."

In fact, Delhi and Beijing are slowly moving in the right direction. In India, industry and scholars recently persuaded the government to ask two state education bodies to recommend ways to improve the country's high-tech and science programs. And in China, authorities have launched a drive to boost the reach and sophistication of technical training schools. Yet getting either country up to speed will be an enormous task. Which means the West can rest easy, at least for the moment—neither India nor China will leapfrog ahead anytime soon.