Stanford scholars find varying quality of science and tech education in Brazil, Russia, India and China

August 19, 2013

America may have legitimate competitive reasons to worry about the number of computer science and engineering graduates from elite Chinese and Indian universities – the figure dwarfs that of U.S. students with similar degrees.

But a new book by Stanford researchers and others says that the concern that these countries will develop their own centers of high-tech production and innovation and draw research, development and scholarship away from American shores is still premature.

The research, a multidisciplinary look at the growth of higher education in the world's four largest developing economies – Brazil, Russia, India and China (known collectively as the BRICs) – analyzes the quality of institutions, the quantity of people getting degrees and equal access to education.

The book, University Expansion in a Changing Global Economy: Triumph of the BRICS?, is published by Stanford University Press.

"In the past 20 years, university systems in these big countries have just exploded," said Martin Carnoy, a Stanford professor of education and one of the authors. "So the questions are why did it happen and what are the implications? And specifically, what are the implications for the U.S. if the market is flooded with new scientists and engineers? Are we going to be overwhelmed? What happens to their societies if all the energy is focused on elite institutions?"

The researchers approached their questions with the belief that societies, and governments, can be judged by the way they invest in and organize their public higher education systems.

For example, how well these countries create a labor force that is competitive in the information age depends on the quality of higher education. Whether people have equal chances to succeed relies on having colleges that are accessible to even the poorest students. And how effectively a country expands its university system may determine how successful it is at growing a robust economy and competing with the United States and Europe, the scholars argue.

"If you have economic growth and provide educational opportunities, you're perceived as a legitimate, successful government," Carnoy said. "So our theory was, if you can pull this off, if you can successfully expand your university systems, you are likely a pretty efficient government."

BRIC undergraduate education increased from about 19 million students in 2000 to more than 40 million students in 2010. The largest increase was in China, which went from less than 3 million to almost 12 million bachelor's degree students during that period, the study says.