Article contributed by CEIBS.
As China tries to grow its way onto the list of high-income economies , innovation will have to play an increasingly more important role. Is China’s educational system capable of producing the innovative and talented workforce it needs? Or will the country’s growth be hobbled by what goes on in its classrooms? Many are concerned that the Asian giant will fall short.
In terms of public education expenditure as a ratio of GDP, China only recently inched closer to the world average. The same is true of China’s level of education, as measured by the average years of schooling among the country’s adult population. It’s not only lower than that of developed countries, but also lower than many of the developing ones. However, a country’s public expenditure on education only reflects the government’s investment, not that of its citizens. Also, the average years of schooling may not be an accurate measure of a country’s educational level.
When it comes to education, quality matters just as much as quantity, if not more so. Based on an index of educational quality, East Asian countries or economies, including China, led the way. The index is derived from internationally comparable math and science test scores of primary and secondary school students from over 70 countries. The authors, Professor Eric Hanushek of Stanford University and Professor Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich, showed that a country’s economic growth has more to do with the quality than quantity of schooling. For example, in 2010 Filipinos received, on average, 8.95 years of education. This was more than the 8.11 years received by Chinese, and very close to the 9.13 years received by Singaporeans; but economic development in the Philippines is far behind Singapore and China. These results would not be surprising to anyone who knows that the index of educational quality for Singapore is 5.33, for China it’s 4.94, while it is only 3.65 for the Philippines.
Some may laugh at any mention that China’s education is of high quality. But it’s worth noting that quality here is being measured in terms of the knowledge and cognitive skills acquired by primary and secondary school students of the same age. For example, according to the above index, we can say that China’s ninth-graders have slightly higher cognitive skill levels (4.94) than those in the US (4.90). But because the average years of schooling in the US, at 13.09 in 2010, is much higher than China’s 8.11 years, the overall level of education in the US is obviously higher.
Many people may be unimpressed by these numbers. They are likely the ones who believe that good exam results do not necessarily mean a good education. These are typically the same people who say the Chinese are only good at exams, not so good in actual ability, let alone being creative. It is certainly true that good grades do not guarantee great ability, and low marks do not necessarily imply low creativity. But grades and abilities are highly correlated. There are far fewer high grades-low ability students than low grades-low ability students.
When people criticize China’s educational system for not being able to produce creative talents, they are making a simplistic and static comparison between China, still a developing country, and Western developed countries, most of which have been at the technological frontier since the industrial revolution. Yes, the level of China’s science and technology is still far behind that of most developed countries. But the same can be said about all developing countries. The issue is not that an exam-oriented education strangles the innovative abilities of Chinese students; it’s just that China is still far behind many developed countries when it comes to average years of schooling, the ratio of research personnel to the overall population, and per capita R&D expenditure. It’s not that China’s primary and secondary education or even undergraduate college education is poor; the problem is that its postgraduate education, especially at the doctoral level, is still inferior to that of developed countries.
Once Chinese students enter Western universities for postgraduate education, they are no less creative and innovative than students from any other country. According to a study by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), China contributes the most (16.3%) immigrant inventors to developed countries. The term “immigrant inventor” refers to a researcher who applies for a patent in a country where he is a resident but not a citizen. China’s topping of this WIPO list suggests that the country is suffering from severe brain drain; but on the other hand, it also means that its educational system is capable of nurturing lots of talented individuals that developed countries would welcome. After all, almost all those immigrant inventors received primary, secondary, and in most cases, undergraduate education inside China, and apparently the country’s “exam-oriented” education did not adversely affect their creativity.
In spite of the brain drain, China’s educational system has still managed to produce enough talents that have stayed in the country to make it the fastest growing nation in innovation over the past two decades, as measured by the number of patents applied for and granted and the number of scientific articles published in top international journals.
China’s educational system may leave a lot to be desired, but will it strangle economic growth? Far from it. - Forbes
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