Why Chinese students come out at the top while Indians hit the bottom!

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 defeating Kyrgyzstan 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, which is evident from the way they are storming into global rankings.

Chinese education is a very consistent blend of Confucian theories and modern concepts mixed with Chinese national developmental policies. Chinese education, unlike ours, focuses on both socio-cultural and political aspects of the nation. The current Chinese education system extends from the guidelines that Premier Zhou Enlai gave in 1974; guidelines that are popularly known as sì gè xiàn dài huà or the 'Four Modernizations'. 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. This nine year of compulsory education makes a child conversant with mathematics, science and Chinese literature.

Interestingly, even rural students undergo similar training; and by the end of the ninth year of education, the rural student is at par with his urban counterpart. 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 above all suffer largely from the curse of teachers' absenteeism. On an average, more than 30 per cent of teachers are found absent in rural schools. In order to curb this menace, China pays their teachers based on student scores. Thus, a large component of teachers’ salaries depends on their students’ performance. Yet, there’s a balance. The better the school (based on the students' score) more is the fees they charge, thus increasing competition and quality both at the same time. Back in 2007, an article published in BBC stated, “China is now the largest higher education system in the world: it awards more university degrees than the US and India combined... The rate of university expansion has been beyond anything [that] anyone in the West can easily imagine.”

Millions of Chinese students are now abandoning colleges and are opting for vocational schools. These vocational schools are backed up by Chinese industrialists and known for producing ready-for-job candidates. 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. Vocational training was introduced in China so that educated people wouldn’t have to face the brunt of unemployment and relevant skill development is achieved so that qualified individuals have guaranteed jobs. The government has also introduced projects like the State Project 211, State Project 895 and State Project 111, where special importance is given to top top 100 higher education institutes to enhance the quality of their graduates. The Chinese ministry of education is also striving to meet global standards by inviting the world’s best researchers to work in these institutions, thus attempting to benchmark internationally. India too stressed on higher education – particularly in the tertiary sector – but faced with strong impediments in terms of funding, India is falling in terms of percentage of overall spending. The private sector too plays an important role in India in assuaging the demand-supply gap.

Back in 2003, China invited foreign universities to set up campuses; India passed a similar bill seven years later. Foreign universities have not only brought in global teaching pedagogies into China but have also elevated the level of education in the country. Consequently, China is doing exceedingly well in global rankings of late! In 2009, the Paris based Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development, representing 34 countries, released its Program for International Student Assessment, where 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.

China has meticulously planned its education system development in a top-down format – from system development to grassroots level institutional execution. The system is mostly centrally controlled by the Ministry of Education at the top and at the lower levels by the provincial and municipal authorities. This policy led to huge increase in enrollment. The tertiary level students had increased from 8.5 million in 1998 to 23 million in 2006. During the same period the percentage of students in the age group of 18-23 studying in universities rose from 9.8 per cent to 21 per cent – the manifold increase has been stronger in arts and humanities than otherwise. The main objective behind China’s education policy is to sustain the rapid growth that its economy has been currently experiencing. The Ministry of Education (MoE) is also trying to bring the aged segment (who are above the age of 50) under the umbrella of literacy. This has been the case since almost a decade. For example, even in 2003, there were more than 2000 higher educational institutes (HEI) including 607 specially allotted ones for adults. The fresh enrolments in HEIs was recorded at 3,200,000 and total enrolment stood at 9,033,000. A massive 200,000 or 40.4 per cent of postgraduate students were admitted to research institutes, of which 38,000 or 19 per cent went for Ph.D programs and 164,000 or 81 per cent for Master’s degree programs.

As I said earlier, the people who are unable to pursue higher education are provided with the opportunity of vocational training courses at numerous centers across the counties and towns. The secondary schools too have set up vocational training centers to accommodate people who are left out of the system of higher education. There were 15,590,000 students enrolled in secondary vocational schools, an increase of 2,747,000 from 2000 at the rate of 3.95 per cent per year. The Chinese have not only emphasized on ‘scale and speed’ but also on ‘quality and efficacy’ of their education system – especially in trying to penetrate their education policies deep into China’s rural hinterland and county levels.

The broad objectives of India’s education system are similar – a Constitutional framework is also in place to provide compulsory education to all but on account of poor implementation, the provisions have only been on paper. According to National Alliance for the Fundamental Right to Education (NAFRE), in about 600,000 villages, the education imparted is only basic, literacy instruction by semi educated (often not even that) teachers! In higher education, 80 per cent of Indian students are enrolled in science, commerce, humanities and social sciences and only 20 per cent are enrolled in professional programs. To reconcile that, India’s Prime Minister in 2007 announced the setting up of 8 new IITs, 7 new IIMs, 20 new Indian Institute of Information Technology, and 5 new Indian Institute of Science Education; with the purpose of churning out greater number of people with professional degrees. Of these, many are still to even see their foundation stone being laid. Aping China, India did set up numerous vocational schools. Speaking of numbers, India has only 5,100 ITIs and 1,745 polytechnics (mostly dysfunctional) compared to China’s 500,000 VETs (Vocational Education and Training institutions). That’s not all, India’s vocational programs provide only 171 skills compared to over 1500 that the developed countries provide. India is still trying to de-complicate the course structure that is currently too complicated, thanks to 17 ministries that handle VETs and clearly without any co-ordination!! What’s worse, even the service-providers of this system are not fully equipped as merely 40 per cent of the instructors have undergone a full instructor-training course.

A quick glance through the objectives/mission mentioned on the Ministry of Education website of both the nations would be enough to gauge the comprehensiveness of their policies. China’s education missions are not only comprehensive but inclusive as well. 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!