US top India, China in quality, skill of computer science education

Photo by Reuters.

NEW YORK – India produce the largest number of computer science and technology graduates annually in the world, but a growing chorus of critics lament that most of those graduates have mediocre skills, say they are unfit to be hired.

A study in 2017 by employability assessment company Aspiring Minds claimed that 95% of engineers in India were not fit for software development jobs. CP Gurnani, CEO and MD of Tech Mahindra agreed, last year. He said 94% of engineering graduates in India were not fit for hiring, reported The Economic Times.

Now, a study in the US makes it clear that quantity does not translate to quality, as far as computer science (CS) education in India is concerned. In fact, India ranks below the US in that study which also analyzed computer science smarts of students from two other countries: China and Russia. India ranks at par with China and Russia, statistically.

The study, led by Prashant Loyalka of Stanford University, analyzed that the 65,000 CS graduates from the United States are outnumbered, but are much more skilled, on average, than the same graduates from China (185,000), India (215,000), and Russia (17,000). The results were published recently in a publication of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The sub-par quality of CS graduates from India and China also mean a paucity of talent in a world increasingly reliant upon globalization.

In the US, it is projected that over half a million CS jobs will be created within the next decade, and by 2024 almost three-quarters of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) job growth will be in computer-related occupations. The excess demand for ICT workers in Europe is further expected to double between 2015 and 2020.

The study pointed out that the rising demand and competition for computing professionals has seen a corresponding expansion in undergraduate CS programs. Undergraduate CS enrollments in doctoral research institutions in the US and Canada tripled between 2006 and 2016. The number of CS graduates in Europe increased by 150% between 1998 and 2012. The number of CS graduates in China and India – approximately three and three and a half times more than the United States – also increased by 33% from 2011 to 2015 alone.

“There is this narrative that higher education in the United States is much stronger than in other countries, and we wanted to test whether that’s true,” said Loyalka, who is also a center research fellow at the Rural Education Action Program in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. “Our results suggest that the US is doing a great job at least in terms of computer science education compared to these three other major countries.”

As part of the study, the researchers selected nationally representative samples of seniors from undergraduate computer science programs in the US, China, India and Russia. Students were given a two-hour standardized computer science test developed by the nonprofit testing and assessment organization Educational Testing Service. In total, 678 students in China, 364 students in India and 551 students in Russia were tested. In the US, the researchers used assessment data on 6,847 seniors.

The test, which aligns with national and international guidelines on what should be taught, probed how well students understand different concepts and knowledge about programming, algorithms, software engineering and other computer science principles.

Researchers found that the average computer science student in the US ranked higher than about 80 percent of students tested in China, India and Russia. In contrast, the difference in scores among students in China, India and Russia was small and not statistically significant, according to the study.

Researchers also compared a smaller pool of students from top-ranking institutions in each country. They found that the average student in a top computer science program in the US also ranked higher than about 80 percent of students from top programs in China, India and Russia. But the top Chinese, Indian and Russian students scored comparably with the US students from regular institutions, according to the research.

The researchers also found that the success of the American students wasn’t due to the sample having a large number of high-scoring international students. The researchers distinguished international students by their language skills. Of all sampled US students, 89.1 percent reported that their best language is only English, which the researchers considered to be domestic US students.

The researchers also found that male students scored moderately higher than female students in each of the four countries.

Of special interest to anti-immigration hawks, would also be the determination in the study that US graduates only face competition from a much smaller cadre of elite program graduates in China (33,000), India (8,000), and Russia (4,000).

A substantial number of CS graduates from selective programs in the US further face little competition, even from the other countries’ elite programs. In India, the elite programs are from the top tier institutions like the IITs.

As the high-skilled immigration policies continues to evolve under the Trump administration, the question that would surely come up at some point is if India only produces some 8,000 CC graduates who are at par with graduates in the US, then why should the bulk of H-1B visas go to Indian nationals?

Of course, not all the H-1B visas are for STEM related fields, but in the last few years the emphasis has been increasingly on CS and STEM graduates getting work visas.

The study also pointed out that the CS skill gains made in CS programs vary considerably across countries. The math and science skill levels of entering CS freshmen are much higher in China than in Russia, somewhat higher in Russia than in the United States, and much higher in Russia than in India.

That China, India, and Russia have comparable CS skill levels by the end of college even though they start with different levels of math and science skills, suggests that program quality is lowest in China and highest in India, the study surmised.

In an email to this writer, Loyalka said India probably experiences higher skill gains in college than China or Russia.

“We attribute the equivalent levels of China and Russia at the end of college not to what colleges are doing but what happens before college in India. College is in India actually doing a decent job training students. A lot of work therefore needs to go into improving learning levels before college in India, so that students are better prepared to start college and eventually graduate with higher skill levels,” he wrote.

The study makes it clear that India need to overhaul their CS education programs in colleges in a hurry. Or risk the prospect of diminishing quality in their labor force, and loss of competitiveness globally.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)




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