India Needs a Sputnik Moment

Competition is a great motivating force for individuals and nations. In the global battle to innovate, the preferred weapon of choice is education. Warning his nation that India and China produce more engineers and scientists, US President Barack Obama calls for a Sputnik moment, harkening back to the 1950s when the Soviet satellite launch spurred new investments in education and technology. But David J. Karl, president of the consultancy Asia Strategy Initiative, points out that India’s education system is also in dire need of a Sputnik moment: Half of India’s children drop out in primary school; government scrimps on outlays for research and technology in higher education; the nation annually produces more than 600,000 engineers, yet most are poorly prepared for world-class jobs. Innovation is essential for meeting global challenges. The most competitive nations will fund and respect science and math educators, expecting high quality along the way. – YaleGlobal

India Needs a Sputnik Moment

To compete globally, India must jolt education and spur innovation
David J. Karl
Friday, March 4, 2011

LOS ANGELES: History is back in the news in a bid to shape the future. Recently US President Barack Obama recalled a 53-year incident to energize the country. India, one of the emerging giants, could take a page from Obama’s book.

US politicians used the Soviet launch of the Sputnik I satellite on 4 October, 1957, to spur massive new investments in technology and education. By November 2, the New York Times suggested that “The long orbital shadow of the sputnik has been able to do in a few weeks what scientists and educators have been unable to do in years,” in an article headlined “Sputnik Acts a Spur to U.S. Science and Research; Changes Coming.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act, boosting math, engineering and science education, in September 1958. NASA began operations the following month.

More than half a century later, Obama returns to a theme common in US policy circles, citing global competition from China and India in his State of the Union address. He regularly refers to the prodigious output of brainpower from the world’s two most populous countries in exhorting the need for US economic and education reform. As he told a town-hall meeting in 2009, “we can’t afford our kids to be mediocre at a time when they’re competing against kids in China and India.” At a gathering last year in Las Vegas, he cautioned that if both countries are “producing more scientists and engineers than we are, we will not succeed.”

There is no doubt that China and India are enhancing their research and development profiles, churning out more scientists and engineers than the United States. Yet the caliber of their graduates is generally poor. In India’s case, this reality tends to be obscured by the prominent role of India-born engineering and scientific talent in driving US prosperity and innovation – most prominently in Silicon Valley – as well as the swelling number of bright, diligent Indian students enrolled in American universities. These images formed the backdrop for a widely-publicized 2005 report, Rising Above The Gathering Storm, by an eminent group of US business leaders and scientists who warned that India, along with China, was quickly acquiring a vast reservoir of low-wage, highly-trained brainpower that will inevitably sap America’s edge in innovation. 

Yet for India to become a true competitive threat, it must overcome the stark inadequacies of its educational system. India not only exhibits the lowest educational indicators in the Group of 20, its public education system scores poorly relative to Brazil, Russia, China or other emerging-market countries. The 2010-2011 Global Competitiveness Index issued by the World Economic Forum places India at 98th out of 139 nations evaluated, in terms of the quality of primary education, and 85th for higher education and training. China ranks 35th and 60th, respectively.

Half of India’s children drop out of primary school; an additional half fails to complete high school. Despite recent efforts at improving primary and secondary education, Indian children on average attend school several years fewer than those in many emerging countries. Deep flaws also are evident in the university system. A much smaller proportion of the college-age population is enrolled in some form of tertiary education than is common in other emerging countries; the share is twice as high in China than in India.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, declaring that India’s “university system is, in many parts, in a state of disrepair,” catalogued the problems in June 2007: “Around 10 percent of the relevant age-group is enrolled in any institute of higher education – as compared to 40-50 percent in most developed economies…. Less than 50 percent of secondary school students continue into college education in any form. Almost two-third of our universities and 90 percent of our colleges are rated as below average on quality parameters. And most importantly, there is a nagging fear that university curricula are not synchronized with employment needs.”

Total outlays on the higher education system are much lower than in many other comparable countries, affecting the capacity for teaching and research. Singh’s scientific advisor has warned that research from Indian universities is “hitting an all-time low.” Even the research output from the world-renown Indian Institutes of Technology is slim. As a result, the country has few institutions with strong international standing, making it difficult to attract and retain top scholars and researchers. Indian faculty members publish a comparatively low number of research articles in leading international journals.  Incredibly, given the country’s high-tech image, the Infosys Science Foundation in 2009 failed to find a worthy recipient for its inaugural prize honoring an Indian researcher in the field of engineering and computer science. And The Journal of the ACM, the world’s leading journal in the computer science field, has for a number of years not published Indian submissions on quality grounds.

The quality of graduate education in critical technology fields lags behind the United States and Europe. Concerns about the caliber of India’s legions of engineering graduates have mired New Delhi’s bid for full membership in the Washington Accord, which governs international recognition of foreign engineering degrees. Despite the world-class reputation of India’s technology sector, the country manages to produce few PhDs in computer science each year; indeed, Israel graduates approximately the same number as India despite the 1-to-160 population disparity. A senior government official in New Delhi recently acknowledged that India would never become a great power on the basis of such paltry numbers. 

Educational deficiencies have led to an acute skills shortage. Although the country mints about 650,000 new engineers a year, a recent McKinsey study reports that only a quarter of technical graduates and just about 15 percent of general college graduates are suited for employment in offshore IT and business process outsourcing industries, respectively. The rest lack in requisite technical knowledge, English language capacity and collaborative skills. The report foresees a potential shortfall of 3.5 million IT workers by 2020. Another official in the prime minister’s office acknowledges, “The stark reality is that our education system churns out people, but industry does not find them useful.” This view is echoed by a recent report by a parliamentary committee, which observes that the employability of graduates of the country’s technical schools “remains a matter of serious concern.” 

The skills gap also has acute consequences in other fields. A 2009 World Bank report concludes that an acute deficit of civil-engineering skills severely jeopardizes the country’s growth prospects. The number of civil-engineering graduates from Indian universities must increase threefold in order to make good on New Delhi’s ambitious plans to improve the nation’s decrepit infrastructure. And to expand the ramshackle energy sector, India has been forced to rely on tens of thousands of Chinese guest workers. The chairman of the Central Electricity Authority admitted in a recent interview, “We don’t have that amount of skilled manpower in the country.”

India’s stunning transformation over the past two decades commands world respect, though that should not blind us to its daunting challenges, perhaps none more formidable than in the area of human-capital development. The country’s prodigious demographic resources could one day be the basis for India’s emergence as a full-fledged global power. For now it remains an open question whether India has the capacity to distill potential into actual achievement. Like the United States, India requires its own Sputnik moment that will jolt it into a higher educational orbit.


David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, a consultancy based in Los Angeles. He recently served as project director of the Bi-national Task Force on Enhancing India-U.S. Cooperation in the Global Innovation Economy, jointly sponsored by the Pacific Council on International Policy and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
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