A lost opportunity to learn from China

In recent weeks, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have visited two great powers in the neighbourhood – Russia and China. While the former is considered an old friend, China is both a rival as well as India’s largest trading partner.

Cooperation in higher education was an important item on the President’s agenda during his Moscow visit. However, it was seemingly limited to innocuous memoranda of understanding during Prime Minister Modi’s China trip.

President Mukherjee took along with him a large delegation of higher education officials, including some Indian Institutes of Technology directors, to Russia. There are no reports that university officials were part of Modi’s contingent to China.

While Indian and Russian universities came together to form the Russian-Indian Association of Institutions of Higher Education to facilitate cooperation in higher education, nothing similar happened with China, unless one elevates the proposal to create a Gandhi and India Study Centre at China’s Fudan University to the status of a major initiative.

Higher education on Modi’s foreign trips

It is somewhat puzzling that higher education was not on the Prime Minister’s priority list in China (even though the number of memoranda of understanding, or MoUs, may suggest otherwise).

One of the more interesting though less-talked-about features of Modi’s trips abroad is that higher education has been an important part of his agenda, whether in the US, France or Canada. Furthermore, China is a fast-emerging higher education powerhouse and India could benefit from developing closer ties with Chinese universities.

When Modi visited the US last year, he proposed the Global Initiative of Academic Networks, or GIAN, to enable India to host up to 1,000 visiting US academics at Indian universities for short-term teaching and research assignments. GIAN was subsequently signed into existence when US President Barack Obama visited New Delhi this January.

During Modi’s visit to France, the two countries signed agreements in several areas, including science and technology, geography and planning and skills development.

Higher education was a key component of the Prime Minister’s trip to Canada. A joint statement by Modi and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper identified education as one of the priority areas for the two countries. Canada also came on board for GIAN.

In contrast, there were no major higher education initiatives during Modi’s China trip. There are few details available about the MoUs that were signed. Of course, there were important discussions and agreements on security, trade and foreign investment and other areas.

It could be argued that the visit of the Minister of Human Resource Development Smriti Irani to China soon after Modi’s trip shows that India is serious about engaging with China in higher education. However, Irani’s trip to Qingdao was primarily to attend a meeting organised by the Chinese government and UNESCO.

She took the opportunity to take up important technical issues with the Chinese government, such as the mutual recognition of academic degrees – since around 13,000 Indian students study in China, many at medical schools. However, other broader and substantial issues, including setting up a consortium of higher education institutions, are still in the preliminary stages.

Higher education in China

Most universities in China, as in India, are quite ordinary. However, both China and India maintain a relatively small number of elite institutions.

If India has its Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management and central universities, China supports around 100 elite research institutions, such as Peking and Tsinghua universities. These key institutions dwarf the others in terms of state funding and support and unsurprisingly, in the quality of education.

That being said, China’s higher education sector is well ahead of India’s in terms of quality indicators, such as world university rankings and patent applications.

China has six universities placed in the top 200 – and 32 in the top 500 – in the Academic Ranking of World Universities 2014 prepared by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Only one Indian institution – the Indian Institute of Science, or IISc – finished in the top 500, at 327.

While all such rankings have limitations, the ‘Shanghai ranking' is considered by many international higher education experts to be more reliable than the rankings published by other organisations.

China also has a clear lead over India in terms of patents filed. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization or WIPO, in 2013, China filed 825,136 patent applications to India’s 43,031. China’s elite universities have led the way to a growing number of patents.

China committed itself to raising world-class universities during the 1990s through Project 211 (1995) and Project 985 (1998). Supported by massive government funding, a select number of universities were encouraged to hire the most competent academics from within China and abroad, including star researchers from the Chinese diaspora in the US and elsewhere.

As a result, there is now what appears to be an ever-growing distance between China and India in higher education.

A missed opportunity or deliberate exclusion?

Philip Altbach, founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the US, once noted that “India is a world-class country without world-class universities”.

It does not have to be that way. China’s experience shows that non-Western countries can raise world-class universities within a relatively short period, especially when their economies are growing.

Modi had an opportunity to build bridges in higher education with China, a country from which India could have learnt a thing or two about building world-class universities. The Prime Minister let that opportunity pass.

There are plausible answers to explain why higher education was not on Modi’s priority list in China even though he made a reference to the “world's first large scale educational exchange programme” – between India and China during the Tang Dynasty.

Promoting stronger ties between Indian and Chinese universities, especially in the areas of science and technology, may be seen as posing a national security problem. The Prime Minister and his advisors, certainly from the perspective of hardliners, ought to be wary of Chinese ‘scholar-spies’ roaming the grounds of India’s science and technology institutions.

However, national security concerns did not stop Modi from extending the electronic visa scheme for Chinese nationals. Coincidentally, Modi made the announcement about the visa scheme during a speech at Tsinghua University, where he noted that the institution represented a symbol of China’s success in the education sector.

Engaging with China in higher education carries a different set of challenges than developing closer ties with friendly countries like Russia. However, it also offers new kinds of opportunities which only rising rival powers can offer.

There is much to learn from China, which is a few steps ahead of India in higher education, about how to develop world-class institutions, and what to do and what not to do in the process.

China has surged ahead by focusing on elevating its elite institutions to world-class status, perhaps to the detriment of the majority of its universities. The Chinese appear to have accepted that improving quality across the higher education sector is a formidable task which must wait for later.

Should India consider the Chinese model, perhaps with some modifications, to address the problem of quality in higher education?

Unlike their Chinese counterparts, India’s policy-makers – whether from the prior Congress government or the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP – have shown themselves to be lacking in clarity, focus and ambition when it comes to planning for the future of higher education in the country.

They appear to be content with muddling along. Good ideas, such as the Universities for Research and Innovation Bill 2012, have been all too quickly abandoned. At the same time, impossible and unnecessary proposals are routinely adopted and rejected with each change in government.

A greater and deeper engagement with China in higher education could create greater awareness among Indian government and university officials that the ‘world-class’ tag or world rankings are not the exclusive domain of Western universities. It may even help bring some urgency regarding the desperate need to improve the quality of higher education.

Pushkar is assistant professor, department of humanities and social sciences, Birla Institute of Technology and Science, or BITS, Pilani-Goa, India. This article was first published in