Why Chinese come out on the top?

A handful of weeks back, in the ACER PISA test -- the OECD's annual global assessment of students' skills (for South and South East Asia) -- India came second from the bottom while China topped the list. This acts as the final nail in the coffin of India's dented education system. In spite of arrays of pan-Indian educational programs, India still has not been able to make education inclusive for all. On the contrary, China since the last four decades has been rolling out ambitious plans to revamp their education system.

The current Chinese education system extends from the guidelines that Premier Zhou Enlai gave in 1974; guidelines that are popularly known the 'Four Modernisations'. And what are these? The education system in China revolves around agriculture, industry, technology and defense -- that, as per the Chinese, are pivotal for the country's development. China today has installed key schools meant for highly academically inclined students. China has adopted a policy of providing nine-year compulsory education to all with a special emphasis on vocational training and higher education. 

Contrast this with India, where a high-school student is unable to solve a basic mathematical problem or frame a sentence on his own. Moreover, Indian rural schools are mired with problems of infrastructure and suffer largely from the curse of teachers' absenteeism. On an average, more than 30 per cent of teachers are found absent in rural schools. China's focus on vocational education is also unique. In 2007, China allocated 14 billion yuan to be spent on vocational schools over the span of four years.

Vocational education in China, unlike India, is not just confined to manufacturing but encompasses sectors like information technology, tourism and medicine. The government has also introduced projects where special importance is given to top top 100 higher education institutes to enhance the quality of their graduates.
Back in 2003, China invited foreign universities to set up campuses; India passed a similar bill seven years later.

Foreign universities have elevated the level of education to fantastic levels. China is doing exceedingly well in global rankings of late! Even in 2009, when the Paris based OECD, representing 34 countries, released its Program for International Student Assessment, the Shanghai region outperformed everyone else to be the top performer in all academic categories! According to OECD, China's success is more because of its special emphasis on elite schools (key schools) where one is expected to shine par excellence. In 2003, the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) ranking showed that there were 23 Chinese universities amongst 35 featured in total. 

The top 3 Chinese universities that entered the top 200 worldwide university ranking included National Taiwan University, Chinese University of Hong Kong and Tsinghua University. There are more on the list of the top 500, including institutes likes Beihang University (formerly known as Beijing University of Aeronautics & Astronautics) and Beijing Normal University, which entered the ranking for the first time.

In comparison, India produced a big blank sheet! Not only does India not figure anywhere in ARWU, but it is also invisible in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and QS World University Rankings. India is way behind China in terms of even the number of universities. There are 545 universities in India compared to 2,236 in China. 

Even in medical colleges, there are about 630 colleges in China compared to 251 in India. The total enrollment in Indian universities is only 4.7 million compared to 11 million in China. The situation was similar some years back too when, in 2004-05, India churned out 464,743 engineering graduates while China produced 600,000 for the same year.

According to National Alliance for the Fundamental Right to Education (NAFRE), in about 600,000 Indian villages, the education imparted is only basic, literacy instruction by semi educated (often not even that) teachers! Aping China, India did set up numerous vocational schools. Yet, even now, India has only 5,100 ITIs and 1,745 polytechnics (mostly dysfunctional) compared to China's 500,000 VETs (Vocational Education and Training institutions).

Clearly, not only is India far behind in the number of quality institutions, but India is decades behind in framing the right kind of policies. China is turning its population into this huge advantage, while we are ruining this massive possibility. Given the burgeoning population that we have, it is an imperative to educate everyone - or else the dividends would soon turn into a liability, if they've not already turned into one!

-- The writer is a management guru and Honorary Director of IIPM Think Tank

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