Good Results from a new Tiger

China has fared better in education than India because it gets more out of less.

ECONOMIC reforms matter, but the human resources that take advantage of reforms matter too. China has become the latest miracle economy in Asia, growing at almost 10 per cent annually for more than a decade. But such economic growth could not have taken place save for its development of human resources. If India aspires to be the next Asian tiger; it too will have to do something dramatic to improve these resources.

China and India both started from a low educational base, but China has fared much better. China’s literacy rate is 78 per cent, against India’s 52 per cent. Educational data in both countries are unreliable, but a UNICEF study by Mr. Manzoor Ahmed estimates that 70-75 per cent of children completed primary’school in China in 1990 against only 50-55 per cent in India, and that teachers and facilities in schools are substandard in around half of India’s schools against only a quarter in China.

The World Bank estimates that the percentage of relevant age-groups enrolled in schools went up from 73 to 93 per cent in India between 1970 and 1990, while China’s rate went up from 89 per cent to 135 per cent in the same period.

I visited China in late September, and was very impressed by the schools, teacher training institutes and vocational schools that I saw in parts of the eastern seaboard. The trips were arranged by the Chinese government, which clearly took me to some of the best institutions, not the average ones. Even so, it was heartening to see government schools in semi-rural areas which had facilities that an expensive public school in India would be proud of.

In one Beijing school, the music class had 30 piano-boards built into desks of pupils, while the computer class had 50 computers. Children made and exhibited their own video programmes on TV. The emphasis on extra-curricular activities- sports, music-showed an admirable desire to develop children fully and not simply make them sweat.

However, there are also some myths about China which heed to be exploded. While in China, I was told that (a) education had always been prized in China since Confucian times, since the system of public exams for the all-powerful civil service meant that any village boy could become a mandarin through educational attainment; (b) Mao emphasised education’s role in raising peasant awareness and creating a sense of nationhood; and (c) Deng Xiaoping had strengthened this emphasis on education as a key political commitment transmitted through the Communist Party to every province and village.

By contrast, politicians in India pay lip-service to education without ever treating it as a high-priority matter: several schools have only one teacher who may not even attend regularly, and many schools have no permanent building or teaching materials. So it sounds plausible that China’s success and India’s failure in education can be attributed to the strong political commitment to schooling in China and its absence in India.

However, a closer look at the data for the two countries tells a different story. We often bemoan the low share of educational spending as a percentage of GNP in India. I was shocked to discover that it is even lower in China. UNICEF estimates that state spending on education was 2.8 per cent of GNP in 1988, while the Chinese government estimates it is 3.2 per cent for 1991, and the trend has been downward since 1985. By contrast, India’s spending has risen steadily from 1.2 per cent in 1950-51 to roughly 4 per cent today.

What about non-government funding? In China, local taxes, donations, student fees, and profits of school-run enterprises amount to around two-thirds of state spending, and add materially to the funds available. But in India too such extra-budgetary resources add 25 per cent to state spending. And if we further add the unquantified but very substantial outlays of private schools, it is not obvious that India lags behind in this respect.

This seriously dents the theory that China lays great store by education and India does not. What then explains China’s relative success? The answer seems to lie in the higher quality and efficiency of education in China, in getting more out of less. Its institutional arrangements are more appropriate, yielding superior incentives and higher morale.

Education suffers from high centralisation in state capitals in India. China has a more decentralised system, with responsibility being shared by the centre, states, countries, townships and finally the villages. Mao’s dictum of asking villages to walk on both feet mean getting taxes, donations and fees a at all decentralised levels instead of depending on state handouts. Decentralised responsibility wen with decentralised financing, so the curriculum could be tailored to k cal needs (like introducing relevant vocational skills). Broad guidelines are laid down by Beijing (such as the 1986 law aiming to increase compulsory education from six classes to nine), but local bodies have considerable freedom to innovate.

Teachers in China are not hire by a distant state capital but by locals, and teachers sign fixed-term renewable contracts. They can be sacked if do not perform, and so are accountable to the locals. By contrast, Indian teachers are highly unionised, can neglect their duties, and are not sensitive to local needs or amenable to local control.

Given the scarcity of central finance and qualified teachers, rural areas have hired ‘Minban’ teachers-those without normal academic qualifications-at one-third the wage of a qualified teacher. This improves local control and slashes costs. Quality suffers to the extent Minban teachers are less qualified, but quality also improves as more teachers means smaller classes and no frequent school closures (as in India) if the only teacher is absent.

Teachers in China are not hired by a distant state capital but by locals, and sign fixed-term, renewable contracts.

Some Indian states like ‘Rajasthan are experimenting with barefoot teachers, but teachers’ unions will ensure that the practice is never as widespread as in China. It is dismaying to learn that between 1970 and 1990, the number of students per teacher rose from 41 to 61 in India, while declining from 29 to 22 in China.

India may spend more on education as a percentage of GNP, but China devotes a higher share of such spending to primary education, and this makes a big difference. This percentage in India has been 20-25 since 1947. In China, it was as high as 54 per cent in 1952, but has declined steadily to 33.4 per cent in 1985. Perhaps China is catching the Indian disease.

In India, almost 98 per cent of current educational spending is on salaries, leaving very little for teaching materials. In China, salaries account for 85 per cent of current educational spending, which also seems high. Yet this means spending on teaching materials in China (15 per cent) is seven and a half times as high as in India (2 per cent), and this seems a critical reason why China has made much better use of limited funds.

The quality gap is also evident in teacher training and upgradation, which looks impressive in China. Retraining teachers for higher positions is taken very seriously and gives teachers an incentive to perform better. This is linked to the greater availability of teaching facilities in China: little can be achieved by retraining an Indian whose school consists of a tent without any blackboard or textbooks. In 1986,13.5 per cent of Indian schools were in tutcha structures, most had no drinking water and 28 per cent had only one teacher. Operation Blackboard and an inflow of funds from foreign NGOs and governments has improved matters recently, but a huge quality gap remains.

What then are the lessons that flow from the Chinese experience. They are:

  • India should decentralise both the responsibility for and financing of education, giving local governments the power to raise taxes and run schools.
  • Villages and towns should be able to hire teachers on fixed-term contracts, to exercise greater control over them.
  • India needs to charge much stiffer fees for higher education, freeing more resources for primary schools.
  • The share of spending on instructional materials in primary education budgets must rise steeply.
  • More funds and human resources must be devoted to teacher retraining and upgradation.

None of these ideas are new. Educationists have talked of them for years. Unfortunately, state-level politicians have always sabotaged Panchayati Raj, and seem determined to do so again despite the recent well-intentioned Constitutional amendments. Unless this changes, Indians will remain poorly educated and lacking in human capital. Which in turn means that, despite economic reforms, India will not roar like the next Asian tiger, merely mew like a cat.

What do you think?