Secret of China’s economic success: education

Countries aiming to emulate China’s staggering transformation from one of the world’s poorest nations to one of its largest economies should focus on education, writes Jackie Cameron.

One of the South African government’s biggest embarrassments is its abject failure to provide a high quality education to prepare young citizens for an economically productive adult life.  Now it has strengthened ties with China, South Africa would surely do well to follow many of its big brother’s examples on the educational front.

Many people believe China’s policy of opening up its economy to the world is a major factor in lifting most of its population out of poverty in three decades. But, there’s a case to be made for its education system being just as significant a factor in its turbo-charged growth.

China’s policymakers certainly believe education has been a vital backbone in its economic miracle and say as much in the country’s 10-year education plan. “By means of the development of education, China has transformed from merely being a country with a large population to being a country with powerful human resources,” it notes in the preface.

Although China gives itself a pat on the back for its education system, it is giving it a radical overhaul. This is with a view to bringing it in line with developed world standards as it aims towards being the globe’s best and most influential in science, technology and other sectors of the economy, rather than just being known as the biggest and cheapest. Still, what it has been relying on in recent decades certainly hasn’t been bad, if you consider China’s overall successes.

World Bank data show:

· China has a 94% literacy rate among people over the age of 15, while South Africa’s literacy rate is around 89%;·  China’s poverty ratio has plummeted to below 3% of the population, while South Africa’s stands at roughly a quarter of all people living below the poverty line;·  Life expectancy at birth in China is 73 years, considerably higher than the 52 years you can expect to live in South Africa;

·  South Africans  earn more than the average Chinese – South Africa’s gross national income per capita stood at about US$6000 in 2010, compared to China’s of just over US$ 4000; and

·  About a quarter of South Africans who are able to work are unemployed, while less than 5% of China’s total labour force is unemployed.

So, what are the Chinese getting right that South Africans, and other nations in a similar unemployment and growth rut, should emulate? Here are some obvious areas where we in Africa have room for improvement:

Education is as important as eating

The Chinese value education enormously. After an entire generation was deprived of a decent formal education in the Mao-led Cultural Revolution years of the 1960s and 1970s, there is a huge appreciation for the opportunity to learn and obtain qualifications.

China has instituted compulsory free education for nine years across the country and continually improved access to education in rural areas with the help of organisations like the World Bank and the UK’s Department for International Development. Tibet is the first to offer 15 years of free schooling, including preschool, it was announced this week.

Vocational training and skills upgrading is a feature of China’s system. Everyone – not just those who are academically able – is encouraged to get an education in order to be productive.

South Africans were also deprived of a quality education during those same Cultural Revolution years because of apartheid. Yet we don’t have the same national enthusiasm for making up for it now.

There’s a logjam in the system. We have new generation of young political leaders and government officials coming up through the ranks who don’t have the inclination, or the wherewithal, to deliver a high quality education any more than their predecessors.

China spends at least 3.5% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on education. South Africa spends a higher chunk of its GDP on education, but this 5% is seen as a rotten investment. Many blame the switch to so-called outcomes-based education.

In China, more important than the money is that education as a strategic priority is emphasised from the highest echelons of political power down to party committees and local governments. There’s a feedback loop and consequences for officials who don’t meet specific targets.

Popularising higher education

China encourages its citizens to dig into their own pockets to pay for the best higher education money can buy.  The Chinese save, save, save to put their only children through the best universities in China.

Those who can afford it, and who can bear to be away from their offspring for several years, send them to universities around the world. China is a major source of international university student intakes in the US and elsewhere.

Postgraduate qualifications are vitally important. Some argue that there are now too many Chinese students leaving universities with postgraduate degrees. Nevertheless, the appetite for higher education is a sign that university degrees are highly sought-after and valued.

Chinese leaders, like former president Hu Jintao, regularly emphasise their own educational qualifications. Former premier Wen Jiabao was constantly on the road, visiting education institutions and urging citizens to embrace the highest standards.

Perhaps it is time for some of our own political leaders to go to night school to improve their academic credentials and generally market the benefits of high quality education?

Respect

Chinese teachers are tough, strict, and have the power to discipline, with the sweetest young women turning into textbook tyrants.  What’s more, their pupils are expected to respect them.

Use a bad word or sound slightly cocky to your Chinese teacher, and you can expect harsh punishment – usually in the form of even more homework or a cancelled school break. No doubt this respect for teachers helps keep pupils chained to their desks day-and-night.

South Africa has enormous problems with its teaching staff. Many aren’t qualified. Some blame this on poor salaries.

Chinese teachers aren’t particularly well paid either. Yet, in the main Chinese teachers take their jobs seriously and are seen as vitally important pillars of society.

Treat ‘em mean

In China, pupils who don’t finish their work in the teaching session can expect to stay behind and continue on the project in your recess. Homework is a serious business; even five-year-olds can expect up to two-hours a day of reading, writing and arithmetic practice at home after a seven- or eight-hour school day.

The work ethic is incredibly strong among the Chinese young and it is paying off.  Chinese students caused a stir when they put their counterparts from Europe to shame in a computerised, standardised test of international student skills delivered by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.  China is moving up the ranks among countries publishing the most academic articles in science.

I’m not in favour of tortuous rote-learning. At the very least, though, there’s a case to be made for getting into some kind of disciplined work routine in place so that it feels normal to roll up your sleeves and get on with it later on.

Jackie Cameron, writer.

Jackie Cameron, writer.

This article was first published at moneyweb.co.za, a leading South African news website, and later republished on garethsfirstlaw.blogspot.co.uk in 2012. Write to freelance journalist Jackie Cameron, at jackiecameron.uk@gmail.com
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