Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and President Xi Jinping are on a 'purging spree' but this time it’s not aimed at the usual targets — individuals who fall foul of the Beijing consensus set by the party — that are up for weeding out. It’s some key sectors and institutions.
First, they came for their tech industry. From the dismantling of Ant Financial, after cancelling of its initial public offering (IPO) to taking a series of actions against Alibaba (China’s Amazon), including slapping a multi-billion dollar antitrust fine and deleting its browser from app stores; to making the founder of both these companies, Jack Ma, disappear for weeks to cracking down on Didi (China’s Uber) and pulling down its app from the app stores; to levying fines on tech giants like Tencent and Baidu; to summoning tech executives of 34 Internet companies and telling them to behave — China’s nanny state has been busy cutting its tech sector to size, thereby trimming billions of dollars of their net worth in the market.
The second big target on the list, it seems, is its world-beating meritocratic education system. China’s progress on the education parameters has been so spectacular that it has shocked and awed countries across the world and forced many to study and copy the model.
In 2018, China topped the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), a worldwide test conducted every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to measure 15-year-old schoolchildren's scholastic performance on mathematics, science and reading.
This is the test in which Indian students ranked at 72nd position out of 73 in 2009, after which the Manmohan Singh government simply decided to not participate (the decision has been reversed by the Narendra Modi government and India will feature in the 2021 rankings).
In the latest QS World University rankings, 26 universities from China made it to the 'Top 500' list compared to India’s eight. In Times Higher Education rankings, while 22 universities from China made the cut in the 'Top 500' list, only three Indian universities qualified. In 2018, China topped the list of countries with most scientific and technical journal articles with 5.28 lakh articles followed by 4.22 lakh from the US and 1.35 lakh from India.
Given these achievements in a short span of time, many are surprised at China’s actions in the past few months, which will hurt the very set-up that helps the country stream the most studious and gifted students into the higher education system, and provide them a platform to the much sought-after white collar jobs.
Believe it or not, the CCP is feeling the heat from the people, and its decisions are driven by the angst of parents rather than the top-down imposition of its own agenda.
The culprit is China’s National Higher Education Entrance Examination or Gaokao held annually, and where the fate of 55-60 lakh students is decided. This gruelling exam (taken at the end of the senior secondary school) which tests for compulsory subjects like Mandarin, mathematics and English, in addition to picking optional subjects from either the social science stream (history, politics and geography) or the natural science stream (physics, chemistry and biology) is the sole prerequisite for entry into almost any higher education institution at the undergraduate level in the country.
Given that exam is all important in deciding the future of children, there is intense pressure on them to start preparing years in advance. Those who have seen ads of IIT-JEE entrance test coaching for Class VI onwards would instantly comprehend the scenario.
Gaokao is JEE on steroids. Parents go out of their way to get their kids up to the mark (literally). A full-fledged private tutoring industry has evolved in China (which is now shifting online with the emergence of ed-tech startups — just like in India). As in India, the blame is laid at the door of cram-based, score-obsessed education system, which is incentivising tuition culture. The pressure and stress to perform exceptionally, well right from the time children start attending school right up to the Class XII, is seen as highly damaging for their mental health.
Xi Jinping is said to have called the burgeoning tutoring industry as “a stubborn disease that is difficult to manage”. “Parents want their children to be physically and mentally healthy and have a happy childhood. On the other hand, they are afraid their children will lose before they even reach the starting line… This problem must be solved. Education should not be too focused on scores,” he is reported to have told a group of tutors.
Moreover, the cost of educating a child, thanks to extra investment that parents are forced to make in order to help their children give Gaokao their best shot, is proving to be too much. A study says that the percentage of all educational expenses that is spent on tutors in China’s first-tier cities is 44.2 per cent and 16.6 per cent in rural areas. This has also become a major factor in parents deciding to stick to small families, something that CCP is trying to change.
It’s in this light that China’s crackdown on tutoring companies should be seen. Last month, the government barred them from making profits by teaching compulsory subjects after school hours, thereby shaving off billions of dollars from market worth of the listed firms.
Of course, as many have pointed out, Xi and company are only attacking the symptoms not the root cause — the Gaokao exam. But is that really the one that’s to be blamed for tuition culture in China? It's doubtful.
Lessons For India
In India, tuition culture is prevalent in both 'cram-based' and 'non-cram based' set-ups. Take JEE test and Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) board exams, for instance. No amount of cramming can get you through JEE while the opposite is true of the latter. Students attend coaching classes because the schools simply do not have good enough teachers, who are capable of teaching at the level that JEE demands.
For boards, the race to beef up scores via tuitions to get admissions in colleges certainly nurtures the cramming culture. The reasons why tuition culture is flourishing in both scenarios are very different though they may appear to be exhibiting similar characteristics on the surface. It’s not the exam, stupid! It’s the nature of exam that matters more.
The wrong diagnosis forced India to take a very different approach under United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government when Class X board exams were abolished and replaced with grades. Additionally, no detention policy was put in place forcing schools to pass students irrespective of their scores until Class VIII. Result? The learning outcomes started falling and turned from bad to worse.
Now, thankfully, the National Education Policy has reversed that and the government will conduct exams to test pre-defined learning outcomes in Class III, V and VIII from this year.
This is not to say that China’s crackdown on the tuition culture in light of its extreme focus on meritocracy is foolish. It may have some merits but the real problem lies elsewhere. India and China have a huge population and there will be cut-throat competition as long as there are not enough opportunities in the job market and ways to get there.
The solution lies in expanding access by allowing more quality schools and universities to come up, having vocational training from early on (which NEP focuses on) — not everyone needs to become an engineer or doctor or lawyer — there is plenty of well-paying blue collar jobs that need to be focused on.
This is where culture also plays a part. In both India and China, people are judged based on jobs rather than their finances. A street hawker may be earning more than an engineer in Bengaluru but both will be viewed very differently. Maybe that’s why the problem is more acute in Asian cultures than the Western world and can’t be wished away by taking on the tuition industry.
There is another important factor that’s being missed by most analysts. Chinese didn’t have much problem with Gaokao until majority of the country was poor. For tens of millions, this system has worked wonders by streaming them into best universities and then towards good jobs paving the way for their upgradation to middle and upper middle classes. But now, there are well-off people (mostly in cities) who don't want their children to face too much mental stress.
The concept of stress itself is new to developing countries which are turning rich fast. A critical mass of population now lives a comfortable life in China which allows them the luxury of taking stress. After having achieved social mobility through the education system (and their basic sustenance needs met), these neo-middle, upper middle and rich classes now want to kick off the ladder (mostly living in cities where housing and education costs are putting a strain on their resources) that provided them their new exalted stratus in the society.
So, who gets hurt when you crack down on coaching industry — not the rich for sure for the well educated can afford to teach their kids outside of the classes. It’s the poorer sections and lower middle classes that are going to face the brunt because they will be robbed of the only ladder to climb the social hierarchy.
For India, the lessons are simple. We tried to relieve students of stress and ended up making matters worse. Our social realities and democratic system don’t allow us to ape China’s famed meritocratic set-up.
We should simply focus on providing quality education to everyone in the country by incentivising innovation in primary and higher education (let a million more schools boom, online and offline), set tough standards for students to achieve, and test them for it at regular intervals nationally and internationally. We should do this while ensuring that there is enough flexibility in picking courses and allowing students to go into colleges even if a student is good in one course or area of interest.
Most important, the goal should not be that everyone aims for college. In future, less and less people will attend them. That’s where NEP’s focus on vocational training and academic bank of credits matter (which allow people to leave college in between with a diploma and join back later to complete the degree).
The focus has to be on jobs, jobs and jobs. Education is only a means towards that goal. NEP has hit the nail on the head on most of the fronts. One hopes that implementation will be as good as the policy.
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