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FEATURE STORY: The Future Challenges of Chinese Education
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Education is a fascinating subject area which can be seen from many angles depending on one’s own unique cultural background and worldview. To western observers it seems all too easy to point out the shortcomings and potential flaws with the mainstream education system here in China. The general learning philosophies in this country compared to those of North America or Western Europe are very different indeed. The structure and intended functionality of education systems also vary quite considerably from place to place.

At present we are living in a global era where despite China’s tremendous economic development, the graduates and technocrats of the so-called western world still tend to lead the way when it comes to innovation and overall work related skills. China is certainly not the only developing nation currently struggling to find enough human capital to fill the demand in its booming economy, but it is facing some big challenges nevertheless. Anybody who has talked to business leaders from Chinese or multinational firms in this country has likely heard about about the difficulties of finding and holding on to talented employees who possess independent and critical thinking skills.

While there are numerous reasons behind this phenomenon, one of the most cited explanations seems to be the way in which the Chinese people are being educated. The good news for businesses and for the country as a whole is that the substantial investment and reforms that are being made right now should pay off big time over the next few years.


Steps in the Right Direction

Chinese students rank very highly on the world stage in maths, science and other numeracy related subjects. Reading skills amongst young Chinese learners is also quite high relative to the rest of the world. Shanghai in particular, which topped the world rankings in 2010 during the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) testing scheme, is now seen as one of the best urban areas for education. 

We should also remember how far China has come over the last few decades. A recent report by the Asia Society points out that “China has almost eliminated illiteracy amongst its 1.4 billion citizens, extended nine years of basic education across its expansive territories, developed elite high schools with world-class standards in maths and science, begun teaching English as a second language from third grade onwards and dramatically expanded the number of students in higher education from 1.4% of the age group in 1978 to 20% today”. Furthermore, the report states that China’s educational success is due to factors such as “an intensive focus on maths and science, an internationally oriented curriculum in high schools, a coherent teacher development process and the systematic use of international benchmarking to modernise education policies”.

There isn’t a country on earth that doesn’t want to improve educational provisions for its people. The Chinese not only believe in the value of education, they also invest a huge amount of their personal wealth and time into it. This includes everything from schools and after school clubs to studying abroad.


The Value Chain

A phrase we hear time and time again in reference to China’s economy is ‘moving up the value chain’. When economists talk about this concept they are generally defining it as a move away from the mass production of relatively basic consumer goods towards more high tech or research intensive manufacturing and services.

As the world’s biggest maker of what we might call ‘everyday consumer items’, China relies very heavily on external demand for its cheap exportable products. But with costs rising due to increases in factory worker wages and inflation, foreign companies are now looking elsewhere for prime locations to set up production facilities. The GDP and PMI data of recent months has partly demonstrated this.

As Richard Florida, Global Research Professor at New York University argues, “when all is said and done, China remains an industrial nation. Its overall technological and economic performance appears to be disconnected from its human capital and knowledge-based assets. Moving forward, China is likely to face substantial obstacles in transitioning from its current industrial stage of development to a more knowledge-based economy”.


Creativity and Critical Thinking


In order to become more innovative as a nation, and therefore generate higher profits within the global production chain, the Chinese education system has to do more than just churn out millions of human calculators. When you look at countries like the US, Japan, Germany, Britain, France and South Korea, you see a population of workers which is far smaller than China’s but on a comparative basis tend to be much more inventive, imaginative and artistic. Although this may sound like a fairly stereotypical assertion, it has of course been reflected in sectors such as medical science, technology, automotives and entertainment.

China is definitely catching up to other nations in terms of producing creative, independent and analytical students with well-informed world views. The authorities themselves acknowledge that more needs to be done in this regard and we are now seeing a number of collaborative educational initiatives between specialists and institutions in China and other countries who are working together to bring new methodologies into the Chinese system. It is important for policymakers to remember that improving the quality of education isn’t just about pumping more money into the system, it is also about refining and modernising teaching methodologies.


Clinging to the Fruits of Success

China will definitely reap the benefits of increased investment and innovation in its education sector. The extent to which it can utilise its better-educated citizens of the future will depend partly on how many of them it can hold onto. If we look at India for instance, we see a nation which cultivates a vast amount of human capital relative to the position of its general economy and its average standard of living. Yet the country’s ample supply of world-class scientists, doctors, engineers, mathematicians and other kinds of talented individuals does not quite correspond to the overall state of its economic development.

Amongst India’s downfalls, disadvantages and obstacles to maintaining strong socio-economic enhancement is the fact that many of its elite thinkers and most skilled workers get snapped up by foreign employers. This has also been happening to China for a long time. It is now up to this country to entice its domestic talent to stay at home and also to reverse the macro trend by attracting the most capable people in the world to come and work here.

Another major challenge for Chinese policymakers will be ensuring that educational provisions improve evenly across the country.

At the moment most of the human capital is concentrated very heavily in the major cities of the east coast; particularly Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin. Some economists are arguing that the government’s intense focus on the growth and development of first and second tier cities in the east is creating a divided China. Those in charge of implementing educational reforms and allocating resources are coming under increasing pressure to invest more heavily in the western provinces in order to prevent them from falling behind during China’s great intellectual leap forward. 

By Melvin Shaw
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