Issues in Education (Reflective Blog 6): Can education help China avoid the middle-income trap?

Posted: December 9, 2011 in Education

According to Professor Gerard Postiglione, the higher education system in China has expanded to widen student access and hence, the next step is to focus on the reformation of university governance and alignment of university teaching to the needs of the workplace .Whilst it is important to up the ante and ensure a high-quality education system in China, we must continue to be mindful,  lest we forget, that the road to granting more student access to a formal education (albeit standardized and not customized and differentiated) is laden with many potholes that require repair even before one should start discussing about paving a new road for a better quality type of higher education.

As recently reported in Channel News Asia on 6 Dec 2011, even in trying to bring universal education and ensuring that every child is given an opportunity to be co-opted into the rat race, the one-size fits all education in China seems to be bringing with it a slew of problems that needs to be addressed urgently. We are talking about the pre-mature loss of lives of young individuals who cannot cope under the strain of the present education system and as a result, many have succumbed to the stress by taking their own lives. While a differentiated kind of learning as suggested by Professor Postiglione seems attractive enough on paper, I doubt it will be high on the agenda of the Chinese government education officials as they may already have too much on their hands to cope.

And granted that certain top universities in China are already setting themselves apart from the rest of the country to build a great system of higher education where freedom and autonomy are their modi operandi, being able to sustain their operations in a very bureaucratic system will certainly pave the way for the second and third tier universities to follow suit. And Professor Postiglione seemed to suggest that fostering quality in this quantity (heavily composed of second and third tier universities) will be the key to turning China’s universities into a driving force of economic development and maintaining the country’s economic ascent and beating the middle-income trap.

Whilst it is all neat and nice on paper, I am questioning the workability of this suggestion as many other issues have not been taken into account when using education as a means to beat the middle-income trap. First of, beating the trap requires not just a quality education system but a complete overhaul of the economic growth model most often used by emerging economies, Second, aspects of equity, equality of access and opportunity, generation of employment and provision of protection to the vulnerable need to be enforced. In a country teeming with a population of 1.4 billion, how does one eradicate or even reduce inequalities along the rich/poor, rural/urban, literate/illiterate, gender and ethnic lines? 

Finally, to plant a foreign institution into home ground to kick start a quality education system is equivalent to allowing a ship to set sail into the horizon without a captain on board, especially in the context of China where academic freedom is curtailed and democracy is unheard of. Since the dictates of running the university on the host ground is governed very much by the culture and political ideology of the host country with the foreign institution pandering to the host since the unspoken but nonetheless real purpose of its existence in the host country is a money-making venture – period, it is indeed an uphill task to build a great education system through these foreign institutions.

With so much talk centred on China and its enviable economic rise, I feel that having a quality education system there only serves to widen the existing gaps, not bridged them. And the repercussions of focusing too much on education as a means to an end will be felt most by the unwilling recipients – the already very tensed, stressed and pressurized students. 

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