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India’s computer science graduates: High in quantity and low in quality, finds study

  • India’s computer science graduates: High in quantity and low in quality, finds study | Research Matters
    Photo by Cole Keister on Unsplash

In India, the 21st century began with much hype around the prospect of information technology revolutionising every aspect of the country. Consequently, ‘well-meaning’ parents of most college-going student pressurised their wards to pursue computer science and related fields of study, irrespective of their interest. After all, a degree in computer science came with a promise of well-paid jobs and high flying career, possibly in a foreign country.

Of course, they were not wrong. With information technology foraying into our economic, political, and social lives, there is a high demand for such graduates worldwide. An estimated half a million jobs in this field will be created within the next decade, and by 2024, almost three-quarters of the jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields will be in computer-related occupations, say reports. China, India, the United States and Russia produce more than half of the world’s STEM graduates, and thus, most computer science students come from these countries.

Number of recent STEM Graduates in 2016 [Data Source: Human Capital Report 2016, World Economic Forum].

The enrollment of students to computer science graduate programs has also correspondingly increased in the last few years, tripling in some of these countries. However, do these increasing numbers also translate to quality graduates at the end of the program? A new study, by researchers from the US, China, India and Russia, has compared the quality of computer science graduates from these four countries to answer this question.

The study found that graduate students in the US substantially outperformed their peers from China, Russia and India, including those from elite institutes of these countries. The findings of the study are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), and the study was partly funded by India’s All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and Russia’s National Research University Higher School of Economics.

The researchers identified undergraduate four-year computer science programs from US, China, India, and Russia that had similar course requirements and content and classified them as ‘elite’ and ‘non-elite’ based on the institute rankings. From India, five institutions, each from three states, were chosen for the non-elite comparison, and programs from India Institutes of Technology, National Institutes of Technology and other institutions that ranked in the top 100 of the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) rankings were picked as elite programs.

A representative set of students, pursuing their final year of engineering degrees in computer science, from each of these institutes were given a computer-based assessment test that captured their understanding of different concepts of the subject like programming, algorithms, software engineering, among others. Each student’s examination score was converted into a z-score by subtracting the mean and dividing by the standard deviation of the four-country sample.

The researchers found that the students from the US showed better computer science skills compared to the rest. In fact, the differences in the skills of students from India, China and Russia were marginal. The seniors in the US from non-elite programs, who had lesser levels of skills compared to those from elite programs, still scored better than those from elite programs in China, India and Russia. The fact that the US attracts significant international students for its graduate programs did not affect these scores. In each country, the students in the elite institutes performed better than those in the non-elite institutes.

Average CS skills by elite and non-elite institutions [Data Source]. 

The researchers also studied how computer science skills differed by gender in these four countries. In all the four countries, males had better skills than females.

“The gender gap in skills does indicate that more effort is needed to attract higher-achieving female students into CS and ensure that they have equal opportunities to receive a quality education”, say the authors about the findings.

Female graduates from India were found to be the underperformers, according to the study. Male graduates from India performed the worst compared to their counterparts in the other three countries. On the other hand, female students from the United States scored comparably with students in elite programs in the three countries—India, China and Russia. On the brighter side, the study found that the program quality is the highest in India by comparing the maths and physics skill levels of students who enter the program in these countries and what they gain out of it during the course.

Average CS skills by gender [Data Source].

The study is the first of its kind to compare a broad range of computer science skills within a wider population of students. Its findings highlight the gap in the quality of the current students, who would be the workforce for tomorrow’s organisations.

“Evidence of how CS skills compare among CS students from different countries, programs, and backgrounds can ultimately inform employers seeking to hire computing professionals within a globally competitive labor market, as well as policymakers and administrators seeking to improve the quality and diversity of programs in an international context”, remark the authors on the importance of such studies.