Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Program on Energy and Sustainable Development Stanford University

Students listen to a talk at the Engineering College of Bikaner in Jaipur, the capital city of the western Indian province of Rajasthan, October 30, 2009.
Photo credit: Flickr/Niyam Bhushan

December 11, 2011 - Shorenstein APARC Q&A

Engineering education, finance, and policy in BRIC countries

Between 2008 and 2009, approximately 25 new private engineering colleges opened in India every week—adding 2500 schools in only two years. Engineering education is also on the rise in the other so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, and China). But does quantity guarantee quality? And what should government policymakers keep in mind to ensure that their higher education investments pay off?

Rafiq Dossani, a senior research scholar at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, recently collaborated with Stanford professor of education Martin Carnoy and a team of scholars in Russia, China, and India on a leading-edge comparative study of higher education systems in BRIC countries. Carnoy led the project, which focused on engineering education, and he, Dossani, and other researchers are currently writing a book coming out in 2012. Dossani speaks here about the project.


What is unique to the approach that you have taken with this study compared to anything similar previously conducted?

This is the first systematic study based on a large data collection. Over 7,000 students were surveyed in China and India respectively, and 2,300 students were surveyed in Russia. Brazil regularly collects detailed data on a very large nationwide sample of university students, and we have used this in our study. We also surveyed over 100 educational institutions, including several dozen face-to-face interviews with trustees, heads of institutions, heads of departments, faculty, administrators, and students.

We focus on engineering education in our study because it is the field that attracts the largest number of students. For example, in China, about 63% of students in 2009, or about 1.8 million students, entered through the science track, which is the route to an engineering degree. In India, 1.4 million freshmen engineering students were enrolled in 2011, which is over 40% of the total number of freshmen.

In our study, we ask how governance and finance affect outcomes in higher education. Every country’s educational system shares certain objectives: quality, access, and equity. What has not been studied for the BRIC countries is whether the governance and finance of higher education is consistent with some of these objectives but not others, and how this impacts the shape and effectiveness of the higher education system. The choice of governance and finance are themselves outcomes of the institutional settings in each country. For example, in India, the dramatic transfer of political power in the last two decades from the national government to the provinces has been the key driver of change.

As a result of this shift in political power, the states took charge of higher education and focused on increasing access and equity as their political goals. Given the extreme shortage of funds, they contracted out the actual provision of education to the private sector on attractive terms. The private sector responded briskly. Of the 1.4 million freshmen enrollees in engineering studies in 2011, 98% were enrolled in private institutions, compared with less than 5% in 1990. The rate of growth was so high that in just two years, 2008 and 2009, 2500 new engineering colleges opened their doors. That works out to about five new colleges for each working day!

There were upsides and downsides to this growth. On the positive side, the state offered attractive financial terms for new institutions located in underprivileged areas and mandated that about 50% of seats be reserved for underprivileged students (mostly identified by caste). It also kept tuition fees for the reserved seats very low at about $500 per student per year and allowed the colleges to recover costs and margins by charging a higher fee for the rest. The result was that growth has been geographically spread and access by underprivileged students is high—in our study, 55% of the students came from underprivileged categories.

The downside is that quality remains elusive. Although this does not show up in job placement rates due to pent-up demand, comparisons with the other BRIC countries suggest that the quality is low. The reason is that private providers, for the moment, find it more profitable to provide minimal infrastructure and employ inadequate faculty than to invest in building up quality for the long-term. In fact, given that the investment in long-term quality is likely to be unaffordable, one of our conclusions is that we question the sustainability of the Indian governance and finance model vis-à-vis the other countries in our study, particularly China, where the central government is taking an activist approach in trying to increase quality, at least in the elite universities.

How do your findings in India’s higher education system for engineering compare to the other BRIC countries, especially China as the study’s other Asian country?

In terms of sheer growth and the number of engineering freshmen, China exceeds India. The cost of education is lower in India. In terms of quality, China, Brazil, and Russia, do better. Part of the reason is a superior entering cohort in the case of China and Russia. But the main reason appears to be that governance in the other BRIC countries is more faculty-driven than driven by profit-oriented trustees. We found that the former model is more likely to deliver quality. In the case of China, for example, academic departments determine courses, course content, and the types of disciplines available, whereas in India, trustees make such choices, with poorer quality outcomes.

You have previously said that India’s higher education system is very politicized—how did it come to be this way?

The politicization began at the country’s independence in 1947. Prior to independence, higher education was managed by provinces to produce graduates from the upper classes who would join the colonial civil service. After independence, the state governments faced new demands for higher education from the middle classes. Since these were also important voting classes, the state responded by setting up a large number of public universities. The state controlled all aspects of the university to ensure that their priorities were met, in terms of location, fees, and personnel hired. For example, the state government was represented in the senate of every university and public college. Every senior-level hire needed to be approved by the state government. State government nominees on the senate also reviewed textbook selections and disciplinary choices.

As may be imagined, educational quality suffered and continues to do so in the public colleges. In the mid-1990s, the states faced demands from new voter categories, particularly lower-caste groups. These were earlier excluded from political power but acquired power in the federalization of politics that took place from 1990 onwards. This time around, though, the states decided to subcontract the work to the private sector rather than set up public colleges. This was largely a matter of cost management—the state thought that the private sector would respond to the incentive of providing technical education to those willing to pay full-cost, and invest the needed capital. This would free up the state’s capital for other demands, including for education, such as for primary and secondary education. To ensure that the lower-caste groups were part of the expansion, the state mandated quotas and subsidized fees. In the name of preserving quality—although, in fact, it preserves quality only at low levels—the state continued to exercise other controls. For example, it imposes common curricula and assessment, and, in most cases, certifies a private college only if it is part of a publicly owned university system.

The state’s policies also led to a shift in the profile of the graduates towards technical and professional education, since these were the fields in which the private sector was willing to establish new institutions. This was greatly stimulated by rising income payoffs to higher education engineering and business training. Private colleges account for 60% of the growth in educational provision between 1995 and 2011, and almost all of that growth is in engineering, management, and other professional fields. The value of this is debatable: it reflects the “market” but, deprived of state support, some fields that may be considered to be socially valuable, such as the liberal arts, are in steep decline.

Has the state of higher education in BRIC countries, such as India, led students to seek education opportunities abroad?

In China and India, these are important reasons for student migration to the West. For example, 500,000 students enroll as freshmen overseas from India alone every year. They come mostly from elite families, since the costs of an overseas education are very high.

What long-term policy changes are you hoping to influence through this study and your forthcoming book?

First, we show that the evolution of higher education in the BRICs can be explained by the role of the state (the government sector) and the policy choices it makes in governance and finance.

Second, we show that private provision can substitute for public provision, but with certain disadvantages in terms of quality and educational diversity. In this context, we show that state policy can still influence some outcomes positively, such as access, equity, and cost-control. However, the long-term implications for quality are much more negative through such a model. 

Third, we show that the provincial governance of education offers certain advantages and disadvantages over national regulation. This is a hotly debated topic in China and India. In India, the national regulators seek greater control out of concern about the implications of too politicized an environment created by the states and the poor quality emerging from private colleges. However, we argue that there may be downsides to centralized control, as was witnessed in an earlier period (during the tenure of Indira Gandhi).

Finally, we make the case that the current ”trend” among governments in developing countries of focusing on the creation of a few world-class universities can succeed in the limited sense of creating a few high-quality teaching and research institutions. However, it comes at a very high cost and in no sense guarantees a trickle-down of quality to the remaining institutions. This is particularly the case in the current model in China and Russia, where the emphasis on world-class universities is greatest and these high-cost elite institutions are given increasing funding per student. At the same time, mass universities absorb increasing numbers of students at low and possibly declining per-student funding.

Topics: Business | Governance | Investment | Brazil | China | India | Russia