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Skill levels and gains in university STEM education in China, India, Russia and the United States

An Author Correction to this article was published on 06 April 2021

This article has been updated


Universities contribute to economic growth and national competitiveness by equipping students with higher-order thinking and academic skills. Despite large investments in university science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, little is known about how the skills of STEM undergraduates compare across countries and by institutional selectivity. Here, we provide direct evidence on these issues by collecting and analysing longitudinal data on tens of thousands of computer science and electrical engineering students in China, India, Russia and the United States. We find stark differences in skill levels and gains among countries and by institutional selectivity. Compared with the United States, students in China, India and Russia do not gain critical thinking skills over four years. Furthermore, while students in India and Russia gain academic skills during the first two years, students in China do not. These gaps in skill levels and gains provide insights into the global competitiveness of STEM university students across nations and institutional types.

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Fig. 1: Critical thinking skill levels and gains (s.d. units) across China, India and Russia with benchmarks from the United States.
Fig. 2: Maths and physics skill levels and gains from the start of the first year to the end of the second year (s.d. units).

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Data have been deposited at the Open Science Framework (

Code availability

Stata do-files used to perform the analyses have been deposited at the Open Science Framework (

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We thank M. Carnoy, J. Cohen, T. Dee, B. Domingue, A. Eble, R. Fairlie, E. Hanushek, B. Kim, S. Loeb, K. Muralidharan, S. Reardon, S. Rozelle, D. Schwartz, S. Sylvia and C. Wieman, and participants at the demography workshop at the University of Chicago, the economics of education workshop at the Teachers College, the South Asia Region Knowledge Exchange Group at the World Bank, KDI School and technical reviewers at ETS for their feedback. We appreciate research funding from E. Li, the Basic Research Program of the National Research University Higher School of Economics and Russian Academic Excellence Project 5–100, and the All India Council for Technical Education. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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P.L., O.L.L., G.Li, I.C., E.K., N.Y., F.G., L.M., S.H., A.B., T.B. and N.T. designed research. P.L., O.L.L., G.Li, I.C., E.K., N.Y., F.G., L.M., S.H., H.W., Y.L., A.B. and S.K. performed research. P.L., O.L.L., E.K., D.F., L.G., G.Ling, S.K. and Z.S. analysed data. P.L., O.L.L. and I.C. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Prashant Loyalka or Igor Chirikov.

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Peer review information Nature Human Behaviour thanks Alex Eble, Thomas Luschei and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available. Primary Handling Editor: Charlotte Payne.

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Loyalka, P., Liu, O.L., Li, G. et al. Skill levels and gains in university STEM education in China, India, Russia and the United States. Nat Hum Behav (2021).

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