Despite India's status as a rising global economic power and the producer of many of the world’s best scientific minds, its universities apparently leave something to be desired.
According to The (London) Times Higher Education World University Rankings for Asia in 2012-2013, only three Indian institutions appeared on the list of the top 57 Asian universities -- Indian Institute of Technology, in Kharagpur (No. 28); Indian Institute of Technology, in Mumbai (34), and Indian Institute of Technology, in Roorkee (53).
In contrast, Japan scored 13 of the top 57, including the University of Tokyo, which took the top spot in Asia.
Rounding out the other biggest Asian votegetters were China (with nine universities), Taiwan (seven), South Korea and Hong Kong (six each).
Indeed, India finished equal to Israel, which has an infinitesimal percentage of India’s huge population. Moreover, India failed to place even one of its universities in the Times’ overall top 100 global "reputation" rankings.
Unless The Times harbors some kind of bias against the subcontinent, clearly something is wrong with India’s educational system.
Phil Baty, rankings editor for Times Higher Education, said in a statement: "As a country with a rapidly growing economy and a fine tradition of scholarship, it is a cause for concern that India does not have any institutions that are sufficiently highly regarded by international scholars that they feature among the global top 100 of our World Reputation Rankings.
“[It] shows how far its top institutions must travel to join the elite top 100. … India's higher education institutions seem to be a long way off in terms of global prestige."
Within India itself, senior government officials have already expressed concerns about the nation’s higher educational standards and performance.
In February, no less a figure than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told a conference: "Too many of our higher education institutions are simply not up to the mark. Too many of them have simply not kept abreast with changes that have taken place in the world around us ... [and are] still producing graduates in subjects that the job market no longer requires."
He added: "It is a sobering thought for us that not one Indian university figures in the top 200 universities of the world today."
The Indo-Asian News Service reported last month that India's higher and professional education system is passing through a difficult period.
“It is non-directional because there is no comprehensive policy on governance and role of education in the growth of a nation,” wrote Arun Nigaveka, Raja Ramanna Fellow in Science and Technology Park at the University of Pune and former chairman of the University Grants Commission.
“The system is simply drifting. The states are struggling to find their way to meet challenge of numbers in a revenue-cost squeeze, including rising costs of faculty, technology and administrative burden.”
Some suggest India should look to its giant neighbor (and bitter rival) China to learn how to develop elite world-class universities.
University World News reported that at an education conference held in Delhi last month, Jerry M. Hultin, president of the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, warned, “A global university has to be layered. India does not only need professors and Ph.D. scholars. It needs managers, technicians and entrepreneurs. Other than research degrees, a university can look at creating two-year associate degree programs that equip students with skills to find a job and make a living. The best students or those interested can go on to do a Ph.D.”
Hutlin cited what the Chinese are doing.
“They want a bigger role in the world and they also want more brains. Secondly, they want international players to set standards that will be seen as examples by their own educators,” he said.
Robin Lewis of Beijing Normal University, a conference delegate, suggested India follows China’s example in partnering with foreign schools.
“China is looking seriously into the lack of critical thinking and innovation in its education system and forging international partnerships to overcome this disadvantage. India has to emulate this,” Lewis said.
“The Chinese government has been more effective in supporting higher education. Government subsidies today come with no strings attached. There is a willingness to send people for training and a greater effort to bring them back. But in terms of ecosystems, India has some natural advantages that it should make use of.”
On the bright side, India has delivered an extraordinary improvement in its literacy rate – jumping to 74 percent in 2011 from only 12 percent at the end of British rule in 1947.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.