Catching up with China

India has a lot to learn from China’s educational outcomes, particularly in strengthening fundamental skills at the lowest level of the population

Both China and India started building their national education systems under comparable conditions in the late 1940s. Different policies and historical circumstances have, however, led them to different educational outcomes, with China outperforming India not just in terms of its percentage of literate population and enrolment rates at all levels of education, but also in terms of the number of world-class institutions in higher education and greater research output.

The roots of China's successful education system date back to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which unintentionally expanded access to primary education through democratising the schooling system, which was previously elitist in character, thus, addressing the problem of mass illiteracy.

In contrast, India continued to focus on its higher education system since Independence and only realised the importance of basic education in 1986, staying behind China and many other Asian countries in its educational development. In terms of enrolment, China reached a 100 per cent gross enrollment rate (GER) in its primary education in 1985, whereas, India attained that level only in 2000.

In terms of secondary school enrolment, India and China both started at similar rates in 1985, with about 40 per cent of their population enrolled in secondary schools. However, due to a wider base of primary school students, the rate of increase in China has been much faster than in India, with 99 per cent secondary enrolment rate in China and 79 per cent in India in 2017.

India is closing in on the Chinese rate in terms of access to education, but on the literacy level front, there is a huge gap in the percentage of literate population in the two countries. In the age group of 15-24 years, India ranks 104th in literacy and numeracy indicator, compared to China's 40th rank.

OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which assesses after every three years the domain knowledge of 15-year-old students in reading, mathematics, science and finance, revealed that students in China performed above the OECD average in 2015. Moreover, one in four students in China are top performers in mathematics, having an ability to formulate complex situations mathematically. Further, China outperforms all other participating countries in financial literacy, by having a high ability to analyse complex financial products. For India, the comparable data is not available as it was not a participating country in PISA 2015.

However, in India, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), 2017, provides data for the rural youth, aged 14-18, with respect to their abilities in leading productive lives as adults. According to this survey, only about half of 14-year-old children in the sample could read English sentences and more than half of the students surveyed could not do basic arithmetic operations, like division. For basic financial calculations, such as managing a budget or making a purchase decision, less than two-thirds could complete the correct calculations.

With regard to the higher education system, both India and China dominate the number of tertiary degree holders because of their large population size, but when it comes to the percentage of the population holding tertiary degrees, only about 10 per cent and 8 per cent of the population possess university degrees in China and India, respectively. By contrast, in Japan, almost 50 per cent of the population holds a tertiary degree, and in the United States, 31 per cent of the population boasts of a tertiary degree.

In terms of the international recognition of universities, the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Ranking for 2019 places seven Chinese universities in the top 200, compared to none for India. The global university rankings, based on various performance metrics pertaining to teaching, research, citations, international outlook and industrial income, shows progress for several of China's low-ranked universities, largely driven by improvements in its citations.

In fact, Tsinghua University has overtaken National University of Singapore (NUS) to become the best university in Asia due to improvements in its citations, institutional income and increased share of international staff, students and co-authored publications.

While India has progressed in terms of its massification of education, there is still a lot which needs to be done when it comes to catching up with China's educational outcomes. China's early start in strengthening its primary and secondary education systems has given it an edge over India in terms of higher education. Moreover, Chinese government strategies are designed in line with the criterion used in major world university rankings, special emphasis is on the two factors which weigh heavily in the rankings – publications and international students.

The relentless publications drive, which is very evident in China, is weak in India and has led to a growing gap in the number of publications contributed by the two countries. Further, China enrolled about 292,611 foreign students in 2011 from 194 countries, while India currently only has 46,144 foreign students enrolled in its higher education institutions, coming from 166 countries. The large number of international enrolments in China is a reflection of its state policies granting high scholarships to foreign students.

To catch up with China, India needs to lay emphasis on improving its educational outcomes. Massification drive for education has helped India raise its student enrolments, but a lot needs to be done for the global recognition of its universities. Further, it needs to focus on building foundation skills which are acquired by students at the school age; poor fundamental skills flow through student life, adversely affecting the quality of the education system.

(The author is chair, Institute for Competitiveness. Deepti Mathur, senior researcher at large has contributed to the piece. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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