By Amrita Roy:
Most of us have this characteristic desire to compare the Indian education system with that of Western countries like the US or England. We don’t realize that given the extreme differences in the two at present, they can’t be compared using realistic parameters. It would be much more fruitful if we compared the Indian education system with education systems of places like Hong Kong and Singapore because both the cultures have many values in common and yet they are very different in the execution of ideas and plans. Because of my parents’ work, I have had the privilege of moving around quite a bit, both within and outside India. And over the years, I have been introduced to many different education systems. Currently, I am doing my undergraduate education from The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). In this article, I will try and elaborate on some key similarities and differences between the Indian and Hong Kong education system because, one, they share common values and, two, I have personal experience to elaborate on.
Let’s begin at the very basic level — college rankings. The QS list of world university rankings is very well reputed and used by many companies and organizations. The rankings are holistically calculated using different parameters such as academic reputation, employer reputation, citations per faculty and international faculty and students ratio. According to their 2013 list, three universities from Hong Kong feature in the Top 50 (with HKUST at number 34) along with two universities from Singapore. The first Indian university to feature on the list is IIT Delhi at number 222 which is followed by IIT Bombay at 233. The first non-IIT Indian university to feature on the list is the University of Delhi at 441 followed by the University of Mumbai at 601.
I looked on further and rearranged the list according to subject rankings. Since the top Indian universities featured on the overall list are IITs, I arranged the list by engineering streams. For civil and structural, three Hong Kong universities and one Singaporean university were within the Top 15, while IITB and IITM featured on the list at 49 and 50 respectively. For electrical and electronics, two Singaporean universities and one Hong Kong university feature within the Top 15, while IITD is the first Indian entry on the list at 42. For mechanical, manufacturing and aeronautical, again there was one university from Singapore and Hong Kong each in the Top 20, while no Indian university made an appearance within the Top 50.
The stark difference in the rankings is baffling. It is even more baffling because the schooling system of Hong Kong and Singapore is rather similar to that of India. In India, we tend to complain about how the education system encourages rote learning rather than learning through analysis and application. However, at least for schooling, the same is true for Hong Kong. I spoke to a few of my friends who are Hong Kong locals and they reiterated this fact. Local schools in Hong Kong also rely a lot on mugging answers for most subjects. The tutoring culture is just as popular in Hong Kong as it is in India. The only major difference is that students don’t have to choose a stream at 10th and seal the fate of their lives.
So, the problem is not the rote learning. Yes I agree that it is not the best or the most efficient method of learning, but any form of learning is still learning. The problem lies deeper in the system and these core problems rarely surface because we are too caught up addressing the peripheral problems of mugging, quotas etc. HKUST also has large quotas for Hong Kong locals since it is a public university. It also has differing fee structures for locals, internationals and students from Mainland China. Many American public universities also indulge in implicit quota systems through their fee structures for in-state and out-of-state applicants.
The biggest problem is the massive lack of interest from the side of the government to promote world class education in India. According to the World Bank, in 2011, as a percentage of total government expenditure, Hong Kong spent about 21% on education while India spent only 11%. Hong Kong has a University Grants Committee that advises the government on the development and funding needs of universities in Hong Kong. It focuses on only eight universities out of which three are in the Top 50 in the world. On the other hand, the Indian government is extremely complacent in investing in education which is visible on every level of infrastructure, ratio of universities present to the number of applicants, funding for research and funding for quality education personnel.
So what can the government do (that is if it ever decides to do anything):
1) Build more universities: India has a large population, more than 46.6% of it is under the age of 26. All these students deserve to be accommodated in one university or another based on the quality of their application which needs to become more holistic.
2) Provide all universities with proper infrastructure and research facilities: Infrastructure and research are pillars of any good university. Infrastructure is a must for students to be able to engage in enquiry outside the classroom, and research facilities are essential to allow professors to experiment which could lead to path breaking findings.
3) Create a fee structure based on students’ family income: This is a practice common to almost all countries. Universities never have a flat fee for all. Usually it is based on family income and the fee is based on certain percentage brackets. So, the more your family income, the more you pay marginally as a percentage. This does two things — one, it raises revenue for the university and two, it allows the institution to provide subsidies to deserving students who cannot afford to attend.
4) Initiate internship programs with private corporations and government offices: Experience in the real world is as important as the knowledge gained through textbooks. This also allows employers to understand the students and shape them as per their requirements for hiring in the future.
India has world class students. They are hardworking, dedicated and ambitious. Many of them prepare for and excel in some of the toughest exams conceived on earth. But what they receive in return are a lack of quality institutions. The students studying in universities in Hong Kong and Singapore are in no way superior to the students in India. It’s just that these governments have decided to support their students and provided them with all the facilities unlike the Indian government which has just kept complaining about the brain drain phenomenon and how it is always out of money. During one convocation at IITM, the chief speaker had said, “Brain drain is better than a brain in a drain.” India has the brains. It is for our government to decide whether it wants the talent to be wasted or migrate elsewhere while our politicians mud sling at each other, or whether it wants to utilize this talent for a better economy, a better society and most importantly a better future.