I think the main advantage India has over China is linguistic: thanks to their colonial history and the similarity between Hindi and English (both Indo-European languages with lots of cognates), it is much easier for Indians to operate comfortably in the lingua franca of business and science. While the elite of Indian science and engineering are fantastic, the article below points out that depth is still somewhat lacking. I suspect this is less true for China -- university-trained engineers there are relatively close to world standards.
Previous related posts.
New Yorker: James Surowiecki April 16, 2007
The economic transformation of India is one of the great business storiea of our time. As stifling government regulations have been lifted entrepreneurship has flourished, and the country has becom a high-powered center for information technology and pharmaceuticals. Indian companies like Infosys and Wipro are powerful global players, while Western firms like G.E and I.B.M. now have major research facilities in India employing thousands. India’s seemingly endless flow of young, motivated engineers, scientists, and managers offering developed-world skills at developing-world wages is held to be putting American jobs at risk, and the country is frequently heralded as “the next economic superpower.
But India has run into a surprising hitch on its way to superpower status: its inexhaustible supply of workers is becoming exhausted. Although India has one of the youngest workforces on the planet, the head of Infosys said recently that there was an “acute shortage of skilled manpower,” and a study by Hewitt Associates projects that this year salaries for skilled workers will rise fourteen and a half per cent, a sure sign that demand for skilled labor is outstripping supply.
How is this possible in a country that every year produces two and a half million college graduates and four hundred thousand engineers? Start with the fact that just ten per cent of Indians get any kind of post-secondary education, compared with some fifty per cent who do in the U.S. Moreover, of that ten per cent, the vast majority go to one of India’s seventeen thousand colleges, many of which are closer to community colleges than to four-year institutions. India does have more than three hundred universities, but a recent survey by the London Times Higher Education Supplement put only two of them among the top hundred in the world. Many Indian graduates therefore enter the workforce with a low level of skills. A current study led by Vivek Wadhwa, of Duke University, has found that if you define “engineer” by U.S. standards, India produces just a hundred and seventy thousand engineers a year, not four hundred thousand. Infosys says that, of 1.3 million applicants for jobs last year, it found only two per cent acceptable.
There was a time when many economists believed that post-secondary education didn’t have much impact on economic growth. The really important educational gains, they thought, came from giving rudimentary skills to large numbers of people (which India still needs to do—at least thirty per cent of the population is illiterate). They believed that, in economic terms, society got a very low rate of return on its investment in higher education. But lately that assumption has been overturned, and the social rate of return on investment in university education in India has been calculated at an impressive nine or ten per cent. In other words, every dollar India puts into higher education creates value for the economy as a whole. Yet India spends roughly three and a half per cent of its G.D.P. on education, significantly below the percentage spent by the U.S., even though India’s population is much younger, and spending on education should be proportionately higher. ...