September 8 is World Education Day. It’s a good day to understand why China is an $11-trillion economy today and why we trail way behind at $2 trillion. (Photo: Reuters)
Indians love Chinese food. Our generation grew up venerating Bruce Lee and his imitators. Now most of us bristle when faced with India-China comparisons. The angst is rational. On all parameters but one, democracy versus authoritarianism, we fare worse than our northern neighbours.
September 8 is World Education Day. It’s a good day to understand why China is an $11-trillion economy today and we trail way behind at $2 trillion. The difference is the spread and quality of education. China’s universities are growing fast, much faster than ours, and they’re getting better too. Ours are headed down a slippery slope.
Indian Educational Institutes Lagging Behind
Till the 2000s, our universities were roughly as good (or bad) as China’s. But since the late 2000s and the next 15 years, China has powered ahead. From 2001, China has doubled the number of universities. Ours is near-stagnant. Every year, India enrols 19% of its university-age population; China does 26%.
Ardent deshpremis point to our IITs and IIMs and ask if China can top them. They question the quality of education imparted on Chinese campuses. If only they looked at the numbers.
In a 2015 ranking of the top 500 universities worldwide, the US grabbed the most honours: eight of the top 10 were American, Harvard took the top slot for the 13th time in a row; the only non-US centres of higher education to make it to the top 10 were the UK’s Oxford and Cambridge.
The only Indian institution to make the top 500 was no IIT or IIM but the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, somewhere in the 300s. There were 32 Chinese universities in the top 500. In any case, the IITs admit only 10,000 students every year. The quality of teaching is widely variable across subjects and campuses. They produce infinitesimal amounts of original research.
Sorry State of Affairs
Research is the most crucial product of a university system: it shows how far higher education has equipped people to push the frontiers of knowledge further and think innovatively. Indian universities contribute a measly 3.5% of global research output; China is responsible for 17%.
This large and growing gap between India and China is unsurprising, because higher education rests on the broad shoulders of primary and secondary education. There, successive state governments have failed their citizens.
In 2005, travelling through Bihar during a campaign for polls that Nitish Kumar won handsomely, I came across a dilapidated building, with no doors or windows, whose roof had caved in. This was in Chhapra, (now called Saran), that Rabri Devi used to win from.
The ruins, said locals, were the remnants of the local government primary school. No student ever went there, no teacher came to teach, so anyone who could afford Rs 50 a month for fees, sent their children to private schools. They braved floods during the monsoon, but teachers taught.
It was the same in Hajipur, lorded over by Ram Vilas Paswan and family, where I first learnt of ‘double enrolment.’ It was necessary to enroll your kids in a dysfunctional state-run school, so that they could appear for their final exams from there; the second one was to a private institution that would teach.
What about the quality of teaching? Recent education quality surveys, called ASER, conducted by a highly regarded non-profit organisation show that most of the rural Class 8 or 9 students could not solve problems or answer questions they should have mastered by Class 4.
On Teachers’ Day earlier this month, President Pranab Mukherjee spoke about his school years. He had to walk 5 km every day to reach school. During monsoons, when rainwater flooded Bengal’s paddy fields, the only way to get there was to walk along ‘aals’, raised earthen markers between plots. Pranabbabu recalled he wore a gamchha and packed his school clothes and books in another gamchha bundle he carried on his head.
Not much has changed since then. In 2011, I travelled extensively in Bengal to cover its assembly elections. Across a vast swathe of rural Bengal, from the central districts to the western areas called ‘jungalmahal’ and the densely populated southern part of the state, it was the same tale: state-driven schooling had collapsed.
For a decade or so, let Indians stop benchmarking themselves to China and concentrate on fixing the actual foundation and plumbing of our economy. The foundation is our schools, the plumbing, our university system. Without either, we’ll continue to live in a house of cards.
(Abheek Barman, the writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist)