Setting the Tone

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

- Theodore Roosevelt

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Views from the Ground: Comparing Indian and Chinese Higher Ed

China is a vastly different country than India: If anyone has any doubts, she should try a train ride. In India, it would be, at best, a sleeper coach travelling at 70 miles an hour, with a 1960s feel about it; In China, it would be a bullet train travelling at 200 miles an hour, with a slightly futuristic ambiance. But the difference is more than that meets the eye: It is not just about efficiency, speed and technology, but also in what's behind all this, the deliberate hand of the government embedded everywhere. One train ride and one would know the essential aspect of comparing China and India: As Tarun Khanna put it in slightly different words, China works because of the Government and India, in spite of it.

So it is even when we visited the 'private' Higher Education institutions in China, which we did during our visit last month. We visited three cities, Shanghai, Hefei and Hangzhou, and spoke, as is becoming the pattern of our visits, to employers, educators and some students. We saw private universities and vocational training companies, and designed models for delivery of our courses in China. The principal difference that we saw from what we saw in India is in the enabling role of the Government, at least in enabling the enterprises: The universities we visited received significant funding from the government even though they are private institutions, and even the vocational training company was closely supported. In India, on the contrary, the private education providers (perhaps with reason) were viewed with suspicion. The Chinese institutions looked matured and well-endowed, the Indian ones chaotic and struggling.

We may be dealing with a small sample here and what we have may not be like for like comparison at all. There is no clear way to compare a 20 year old institution with wet under the ears private universities that we met in India. And, surely I drew comfort by thinking that Indian institutions will possibly look the same way once we have allowed them time to mature. But, one problem with such view is that we are competing in the real time, Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs, statesmen and students. While it is not a zero-sum game (Chinese prosperity does not signify Indian doom), there are global jobs, patents and contracts up for grabs, and it surely looks zero-sum at the level of the individual.

One must therefore return to the essential difference, the role of the government. For the sake of this discussion, let us accept that there is no alternative to private Higher Education, not at least in India and China, where the demographic pressures make a purely public solution unworkable. With this as the starting point, it surely seems the Chinese government's approach of supporting and enabling the private institutions, rather than the Indian government's policy of controlling and constraining them, has a better chance of producing the results that these countries need. And, this is not about the level playing field becoming levelled over a period of time: Seen in the context of competitive landscape, wasted lives and opportunities, one needs to address this NOW.

Which model of government involvement is better is a discussion for another day. It may also be that Indian private businesses grow up leaner and more efficient because they have no government support (and, in fact, government hindrance) whereas the Chinese companies are allowed some slack. But, in education, working with Government and Regulators may be an essential requirement for efficiency and good quality. In India, it is not unusual to have conversations focused on how to get around regulations: While mindless regulations in Indian education sector often makes such evasions a necessity, seeking such opportunities all the time drive the focus away from quality and process orientation, central to delivering meaningful education.

Going beyond the differences though, we also found a lot of similarities between China and India (just as you find in trains, where trains and stations are orderly in China, but commuters aren't), particularly in terms of pedagogy and teaching practises. The issues we heard are quite similar, like the lack of trained teachers, which is true even in matured institutions. We have noted, coming from a different paradigm, similarities in how students and educators approach knowledge, a given and something handed down, and how the teaching, at least in some of the places we were visiting, were limited by the 'power distance' between the teacher and the student, and often by the difference in social position of the two (this may have been acute in the private institutions with non-elite students).

I think this is where there is a big similarity, despite the different starting points that the two education systems have: An urgent requirement of redefinition, to meet the shifting needs of the economy (moving up the value chain and creating a consumption-led economy). The details of the challenge may be slightly different in India than China, but the requirement of change is clear at all levels. There is an uncanny similarity in what the President of a Chinese university we were visiting and the academic team of a proposed private university being set up in West Bengal, India: Our curriculum is very narrow and we need to widen the perspective. One surely knows that the two countries have to travel two different paths to find the answer, but, at the outset, the answer may look remarkably similar: Creating Self-responsible learners, encouraging a creative approach to life and work, a dynamic view of knowledge and skills and exploiting the huge possibilities and dealing with challenges posed by rapidly evolving learning technologies and learning content.

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