Learning higher education lessons from China

In the early 1980s, India had quantitatively and qualitatively more infrastructure than China. Until the last decade, India’s higher education outperformed its Chinese counterpart – both quantitatively and qualitatively – and China retained its long-term lead in primary education.

But the situation is altogether different today, as China now dominates in ‘soft infrastructure’ areas too, which include higher education.

Higher education development in India and China closely parallels their economic growth over the past couple of decades.

Higher education in India struggles with moderate reactive growth, whereas China achieves higher growth and is proactive in its goals; in no small measure, this derives from the fact that the Chinese system is more directly focused on quality than India’s.

China is a unique case in higher education development. In 2010 China achieved a gross enrolment ratio of 30% in higher education, up from an abysmally low 3% to 4% in 1990. India barely improved its enrolment ratio in the same 20-year period, moving from less than 10% to 15% enrolment.

But these figures are somewhat misleading because they do not clearly show the effects of India’s population, which is younger than China’s. Fifty percent of India’s population is under 25 years of age and thus has not yet entered the tertiary sector.

This is reflected in UNESCO figures for 2010, which show primary level enrolment in India and China at 160 million and 100 million respectively, and tertiary level enrolment in India and China at 15 million and 30 million respectively.

These projections do match with current figures, barring primary enrolment in India, which is a little less. Effectively, India has nearly 60% higher enrolment at primary school level than China, whereas at tertiary level India has almost half the number of enrolments that China has.

The implications of a low gross enrolment ratio at tertiary level for a nation as young as India can be significant. The possibility of stalled economic growth is particularly worrying. The gross enrolment ratio for higher education in India is the lowest among BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) economies, and significantly lower than the world average.

The Twelfth Five-Year Plan (2012-17) of the statutory body responsible for governing higher education in India opens with the comment: “Higher education in India is passing through a phase of unprecedented expansion, marked by an explosion in the volume of students, a substantial expansion in the number of institutions and a quantum jump in the level of public funding.”

There is no mention of quality of education here, nor of the fact that this expansion is far outstripped by concurrent expansions in the Chinese higher education sector. This is odd, considering that China is increasingly seen both as a key economic rival, and at best as a benchmark, for India.

Quantity versus quality?

Should India sacrifice the quality of its higher education to increase its quantity?

Judging from the 2006 report of the National Knowledge Commission, it appears that higher education is being geared towards producing a large number of graduates rather than high-quality graduates. This report suggested that accountability indicators designed to ensure quantity were inhibiting the quality of graduates, particularly in relation to their creative and entrepreneurial skills.

The report stated that “the existing framework, rather than fostering accountability, constrains the supply of good quality institutions whilst excessively regulating the existing institutions in the wrong places and is not conducive to innovation or creativity".

These findings are backed up by another report, which describes the Indian higher education sector as: “over-regulated and under-governed”. At the same time, quantity expansion has been grossly inadequate, making the challenges daunting on the dual fronts of quantity and quality.

Quality was compromised in China’s massive expansion of higher education as well. But today there are many more Chinese than Indian universities among the world’s top 200. Chinese secondary school students are exemplary performers in PISA tests, while India fares poorly, coming second to last among 73 participating nations.

The Indian state is absent

The salient reason for the discrepancy between Chinese and Indian educational performance is the absence of the state from higher education in India.

During 2005-06, around 52% of Indian students accessed higher education in private colleges, compared to less than 10% in China. In China, the government spends more than 1.5% of its gross domestic product on higher education while India spends less than 0.5%.

China has grown its higher education sector primarily with the help of universities, which number more than 2,300. India has around 600 universities, but they have more than 33,000 affiliated colleges. This is the largest number of affiliated colleges in the world, and is 10 times more than that of China. The majority of these universities and colleges in India are private and do not receive financial support from the Indian government.

The trend is even more disturbing.

In 2000-01, enrolment in private, unaided higher education institutions was barely 33%, which became 52% in 2005-06. The share of private, unaided institutions among all higher education institutions in India was 33% in 2000-01; in 2005-06 it had increased to 63%, and according to a recent report, it now stands at 80%.

These numbers show that quantity expansion in India has been achieved by self-financing colleges alone. It effectively means that almost all government support for higher education is for the 20% of students studying in government colleges.

It is not necessarily the case that these 20% of students studying higher education in state-aided colleges come from poorer backgrounds, or are more worthy of support than the other 80% pursuing higher education in self-financed colleges.

This structural anomaly is at the basis of the Indian economy’s lack of scale in production capacity. With so many colleges, monitoring and controlling becomes difficult, which can significantly compromise quality.

The fate of higher education in either of the countries brings to mind China's and India’s economic development paths.

Where China emphasised government-controlled reform and liberalisation, India opted for liberalisation with less government oversight. China continues to see unprecedented expansion in economic capacity at a time when inadequate capacity remains a major economic bottleneck for India.

Many scholars and commentators continue to draw comparisons between India and China. But it is increasingly clear that reforms in China and India are drastically different in character and impact. The higher education performance in the countries speaks just as loudly as the overall economic picture.

* Ranjit Goswami is professor and director of the school of management at RK University. This is an edited version of the article, “Economic Growth and Higher Education in India and China”, first published by the East Asia Forum.