3 FEB, 2013
There is a battle taking place between India and China — not for today's economic growth, but for economic growth a decade from now. The field of battle is higher education, and India is losing. Big time.
World Bank statistics show that higher education enrollment is a leading indicator of economic growth. When a country substantially increases the number of university students it educates, that country tends to enjoy a spike in economic growth in the decade that follows. It happened with Japan and Korea in the early and late 1980s respectively.
China will soon reap the rewards of its annual $250-billion investments in higher education. Since the turn of the millennium, China has doubled the number of institutes of higher education and increased enrollment five-fold. It has been the greatest expansion in university education in the history of mankind.
As a result, 26% of China's university-age population is enrolled in an institution of higher education, versus 18% in India. It was not always so. In 1990 and 2000, India bested China in university enrollment rates. Until China decided to make higher education a policy priority.
A New Medium
Do not let India's outliers — the IITs and IIMs — fool you. The key battlefield is in higher education for the masses. And on this China wins hands down, on both quality and quantity. Sure, India's IITs and IIMs offer top-notch education. But they reach a scandalously small proportion of Indian students.
The annual intake of the IITs currently amounts to about 10,000 students, a fraction of India's 12-crore-strong university-age population.
So what is India doing to catch up? Not much. The University Grants Commission's 12th Five Year Plan (covering 2012-2017) is short on ambition and long on vague laments ("considerable challenges remain" it says). While China has ambitious plans that it executes, India has un-ambitious plans that it fails to execute.