India Has The Brains, But Where’s The Beef?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

India is full of smart, highly-trained, English-speaking computer wizards, thanks to the legendary Indian Institutes of Technology. All it needs is decent “infrastructure”–code for airports, highways and the reliable supply of utilities–and its full potential is ready to be realized.

Sound familiar? That’s the shibboleth that many Western executives and journalists buy into, fed by quick fact-finding trips and endlessly repeated media myths.

In India, critics of this simplistic picture tend to attack the lack of access to primary education for hundreds of millions of children, and this has rightly been the focus of education policy. One level up, the voracious appetite of the information technology (IT) sector demands science and engineering graduates at a rate that’s on par with the U.S., China and Russia.

Between the burgeoning private sector in IT training (the NIITs, a chain of vocational training schools, train over a hundred times as many IT workers annually as the Indian Institutes of Technology) and the untiring efforts of industry consortia such as the National Association of Software and Services Companies to elevate IT education as a policy priority, this shortage will also be addressed over time.

India’s real infrastructure problem–with no solution in sight–is not airports or electricity; it is the virtual nonexistence of graduate education and research in information and other crucial technologies. Consider this for starters: The U.S. produces about 1,400 Ph.D.s in computer science annually and China about 3,000. By stark comparison, India’s annual computer science Ph.D. production languishes at roughly 40. That number is about the same as that for Israel, a nation with roughly 5% of India’s population size.

Perhaps more significant, the quality of graduate research in India lags significantly behind the U.S. and Europe, with a few rare exceptions. This seems paradoxical, considering that American academia and industry thrive on Indian scientists. The reason is that graduates from the top Indian science and engineering schools tend to head abroad to do their graduate work, where they frequently excel and settle.

The current economic boom in India further exacerbates this: The top graduates who remain in India have lucrative options ranging from IT giants to investment banks. According to news reports, all the top five graduates from one Institute of Technology last year had offers from Deutsche Bank (nyse: DB – news – people ).

What is the cost to the Indian economy and society from laggard graduate education and research? Most Indian IT jobs are in building outsourced solutions, quality control, software maintenance and support, and coding to designs created abroad–the IT workforce equivalent of C.K. Prahalad’s “bottom of the pyramid.”

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Source: Forbes (link opens in a new window)