Saturday, April 19, 2008

The transformation of Chinese higher education

China had unusually bad initial conditions with the decimation of universities and intellectual life under communism and particularly the cultural revolution. They have made remarkable progress in getting back in the game. Yao Li, John Whalley, Shunming Zhang, and Xilang Zhao have an article in voxeu which is linked to an NBER wp. In these, they talk about the transformation of Chinese higher education over the 1999-2008 period. While the whole article is worth reading, one element there caught my eye:

A shift from quantity to quality

These higher educational changes have been accompanied by a shift in focus from quantity flow in the pre-1999 period to an elevated emphasis on quality post-1999. Educational attainment in China is now subject to quantity indicators designed to drive continued improvement of educational quality by participating institutions: funding is no longer simply awarded in response to increasing the numbers of students enrolled. Chinese higher education institutions are now subject to extraordinary pressures to upgrade themselves in terms of objective rankings. High priority is placed on international rankings, taken as publications in international journals, citations, and international cooperation. These measures of attainment are directly linked to institutions funding. Some of this focus on improved educational attainment in China seems to be spontaneous and accelerated by the policy process that exerts the pressure. Indicators of educational attainments in terms of international rankings across countries, publications of papers, and citations feed directly into annual performance indicators for Chinese faculty in an ongoing process that goes substantially beyond the tenure-for-life system outside China. It is not uncommon for an annual target of three international publications to be set for faculty members, and failure means termination of employment.

These efforts are a striking contrast with what is sought to be done in India, which is all about quantity with no interest in quality. Certainly, there is no link between quality measures and the funding of institutions or job security of faculty.

Towards the end, they say:

China may thus be the first case of a lower income country using major tertiary (rather than primary or secondary) transformation in educational delivery as a development strategy.

I have generally felt that India is better described as a country where the growth takeoff was critically enabled by decades of investment into higher education. So, if anything, making mistakes on higher education is more damaging for the Indian trajectory of skill intensive growth as compared with the Chinese trajectory of cheap-labour intensive growth.

1 comment:

  1. In a recent interview to a television channel, Dr. Shourie stated that the money spent by Indian students on education abroad is equivalent to the amount needed to set up 80 IITs/IIMs in India (annually). Unfortunately, he did not divulge the source of the bewildering statistic. Cognizant of the fact that India lacks the intellectual, social and physical infrastructure needed to set up world class educational institutions, the success of ventures such as the establishment of ISB and the sheer dearth of quality private institutions is an immense opportunity for entrepreneurs with a considerable risk appetite. Discounting for government cooperation, I don’t see why liberal arts colleges or parallels to IITs/IIMs/AIIMS wont succeed. Reforms on the primary education front have been reasonably sound over the past decade. One of the problems with the discussion on the macro issue of education in India is its polar nature. We tend to take a primary versus higher education view while ignoring the fact that a synchronous development strategy is not only feasible, but indispensable. Perhaps we could add this to the to-do list inspired by China.

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