Higher Education Quality in South Asia
A few top-tier Indian schools, such as the elite Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), are often compared with world-class schools, but the American investors and businesses have finally learned the hard way that there is huge gap between the few tier one schools and the large number of tier two and three schools in India. Other than about 5000 graduates from the IITs, the quality of education most Indians receive at tier 2 and 3 schools is far below the norm considered acceptable in America and the developed world.
In 2005, the McKinsey Global Institute conducted a study of the emerging global labor market and concluded that a sample of twenty-eight low wage nations, including China, India and Pakistan, had about 33 million young professional in engineering, finance and accounting at their disposal, compared with only 15 million in a sample of eight higher wage nations including the US, UK, Germany, Japan, Australia, Canada, Ireland and South Korea. But "only a fraction of potential job candidates could successfully work at a foreign company," the study found, pointing to many explanations, but mainly poor quality of education.
Some India watchers such as Fareed Zakaria, an Indian-American who often acts as a cheerleader for India in the US, have expressed doubts about the quality of education at the Indian Institutes of Technology. In his book "The Post-American World", Zakaria argues that "many of the IITs are decidedly second-rate, with mediocre equipment, indifferent teachers, and unimaginative classwork." Zakaria says the key strength of the IIT graduates is the fact that they must pass "one of the world's most ruthlessly competitive entrance exams. Three hundred thousand people take it, five thousand are admitted--an acceptance rate of 1.7% (compared with 9 to 10 percent for Harvard, Yale, and Princeton)."
As a student of Karachi's NED University of Engineering and Technology in 1970s, I had similar assessment of my alma mater (and other UETs) in Pakistan as Zakaria's characterization of the IITs in India. NED Engineering College in 1970s was "decidedly second-rate, with mediocre equipment, indifferent teachers, and unimaginative classwork". However, given the fairly strict merit-based admission process, I found myself mostly surrounded by some of the best, most competitive students who had graduated with flying colors from Karachi's intermediate colleges and ranked very high on the Board of Education examination to make it into NED College. It was indeed the creme de la creme of Karachi's youth who have later proved themselves by many accomplishments in various industries, including some of the leading-edge high-tech companies in America. Even in the 1970s, there were a small number of students admitted on non-merit-based special quotas. NED University today, however, appears to have significantly expanded such special, non-merit-based, quotas for entrance into the institution, an action that has probably affected its elite status, its rankings and the perceived quality of its graduates, while other, newer institutions of higher learning have surpassed it. Some of the special categories now include sons and daughters of employees, children of faculty and professional engineers and architects, special nominees from various ministries and an expanded quota for candidates from rural areas and the military.
Looking at the top 500 universities in the world, one can see a few universities from China, Japan, Singapore and India and a few more from Muslim nations such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. The notable institutions from South Asia include several campuses of the Indian Institutes of Technology and Pakistan's National University of Science and Technology (NUST), University of Lahore, Karachi University and Lahore's University of Engineering and Technology. Many new universities are now being built in several Muslim nations in Asia and the Middle East, and they are attracting top talent from around the world. For example, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), scheduled to open on Sept. 23, is the country's attempt to create a world-class research university from scratch. It's hiring top scholars from all over the world. "Our goal is to kick-start an innovation-based economy," says Ahmad O. Al-Khowaiter, the university's vice-president for economic development. "We need a couple of success stories, and we think this will lead to one (collaboration with IBM Research)."
According to Businessweek, KAUST agreed to buy an IBM supercomputer, which is an essential tool in the research projects that IBM and the Saudis are targeting for their first collaboration. Among other things, the two teams will collaborate on a study of the nearby Red Sea, which they believe will help improve oil and mineral exploration. "[The supercomputer] is a magnet for smart people, and it makes it possible for us to solve big problems," says Majid F. Al-Ghaslan, KAUST's interim chief information officer.
An MIT survey of human resource professionals at multinational corporations in India revealed that only one quarter of engineering graduates with a suitable degree could be employed irrespective of demand (Farrell et al., 2005). Another survey of employers shows that only a handful of the 1400 engineering schools in India are recognized as providing world-class education with graduates worthy of consideration for employment (Globalization of Engineering Services, 2006). These results suggest that engineering degrees from most Indian colleges do not provide signaling value in the engineering labor market. Hence, low quality (in the labor market sense) engineering schooling has come to predominate in the education market. The current situation, with an abundance of low quality engineering schooling, is considered problematic by many in the Indian polity and it could stifle growth of the Indian economy (Globalization of Engineering Services, 2006).
For the first time in the nation's history, President Musharraf's education adviser Dr. Ata ur Rahman succeeded in getting tremendous focus and major funding increases for higher education in Pakistan. According to Sciencewatch, which tracks trends and performance in basic research, citations of Pakistani publications are rising sharply in multiple fields, including computer science, engineering, mathematics, material science and plant and animal sciences. Over two dozen Pakistani scientists are actively working on the Large Hadron Collider; the grandest experiment in the history of Physics. Pakistan now ranks among the top outsourcing destinations, based on its growing talent pool of college graduates. As evident from the overall results, there has been a significant increase in the numbers of universities and highly-educated faculty and university graduates in Pakistan. There have also been some instances of abuse of incentives, opportunities and resources provided to the academics in good faith. The quality of some of the institutions of higher learning can also be enhanced significantly, with some revisions in the incentive systems.
Admission meritocracy, faculty competence and inspirational leadership in education are important, but there is no real substitute for higher spending on higher education to achieve better results. In fact, it should be seen as an investment in the future of the people rather than just another expense.
Of the top ten universities in the world published by Times of London, six are in the United States. The US continues to lead the world in scientific and technological research and development. Looking at the industries of the future such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, green technologies, the US continues to enjoy a huge lead over Europe and Asia. The reason for US supremacy in higher education is partly explained by how much it spends on it. A 2006 report from the London-based Center for European Reform, "The Future of European Universities" points out that the United States invests 2.6 percent of its GDP in higher education, compared with 1.2 percent in Europe and 1.1 percent in Japan.
NEDUET Admissions Prospectus 2009-10
Global Shortage of Quality Labor
Nature Magazine Editorial on Pakistan's Higher Education Reform
McKinsey Global Institute Report
Pakistan Ranks Among Top Outsourcing Destinations
Pakistan Software Houses Association
World's Top Universities Rankings
Improving Higher Education in Pakistan
Globalization of Engineering Services 2006
Center for European Reform
Reforming Higher Education in Pakistan