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Indian Education System vs That Of Hong Kong: Why We Are Lagging Behind

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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.

You must be to comment.

    I am not consent to your first suggestion , India has ample no. of universities and colleges , but they lack in govt. fund, faculties. In India , people suppose education means IIT ..

  2. Sathish

    A very one-sided article that tends to shower all blame on the government without the slightest sense of self-introspection. It is also statistically, logistically wrong to compare societies such as Hong Kong and India simply because, whatwasit?, they have rote learning and quotas. Hong Kong is 1/4th the size of New Delhi and Singapore is much smaller than that. The average income of people in these two cities is much higher, so taxes are higher, so their governments are able to spend more in education. Additionally, the Indian government has much bigger, greater things to spend on such as defense, medicare on a billion plus people, things that aren’t really a problem for governments of city-states. Additionally, 11% of India’s GDP is much much much higher than 21% of Hong Kong. Also, just because Hong Kong has eight universities that it funds greatly doesn’t mean that every university-level student in Hong Kong gets the best education. Only the elite students of Hong Kong in Tier 1 schools get to go to university. Most go to second-tier colleges or simply don’t study because Hong Kong’s universities are too picky. So this rosy picture of Hong Kong and Singapore that the author is trying to paint is incorrect and faulty, at best.

    The criteria used by QS rankings are far from perfect as well. They might be somewhat holistic according to Western standards, but here’s why they are far from appropriate in the Indian context, with special regard to the IIT analysis. (5 reasons why)
    a) Academic reputation – I have been to MIT (an university I can safely say tops every single ranking list that one can refer to). And, I have personally seen the value they give for IIT students/grads. This is on par with the respect that accompanies a MIT/Stanford/Caltech degree. So, if you ask a random barista on the streets of New York, “What are the top colleges in India?” obviously, you get an insufficient answer. Ask the real experts in their fields and you will realise the relative superiority of an Indian education over the so-called “better education” models. In fact, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology employs a former IIT-JEE topper.
    b) Employer reputation – Again, a Western bias exists in what are good employers, what aren’t. Most graduates from IITs end up working for top firms in the country and the best-US firms. So, I fail to see why employer reputation is an issue.
    c) Citations per faculty – Not really an indication of good-quality research. As a person who investigated citation networks, I can safely assure you mere count of citations don’t mean a thing. More than often, it is just an acknowledgement of friends of that person and don’t really mean that this is path-breaking research. Also, citations are an indication of how much research you do, how much time you have to conduct research, how many research students you hire. Indian Professors don’t really have this luxury (in terms of time and resources) much. (refer to e)
    d) International faculty – You don’t have to necessarily have an international faculty to be a good academic institution. True, it looks great on the admissions brochure, but there are equally, if not, more talented (direct quote from your article) Indians who are capable of doing the same job, or even better. By emphasizing on the need for international faculty, I think you are implicitly conceding that Indian faculty at top colleges are sub-standard at best, something I have a huge problem agreeing with.
    e) Student-teacher ratio – India is a big country. We have a billion people and limited top-notch universities. In order to maximize the benefit of these limited elite institutions, it only makes sense that you take as many people as possible which means that you have large Professor-student ratio. Given the heavy teaching requirements, it isn’t fair to expect that these Professors also be dedicated to their research like their Hong Kong counterparts or be able to hire as many research students.

    1) I tend to agree with Samyak. It is not possible to simultaneously increase the number of universities yet maintain the quality of education that the writer seems to take for granted. Agreed, that every student will have an education. But, the quality of students will drop. You will definitely have more students, but only 10-15% of these students actually value their education, have scientific curiousity, intend to make use of this education in a constructive way. It is much better to invest in a small group of committed youngsters rather than dilute your resources by trying and attempting this massive socialist education program proposed here.

    2) Again it is logistically impossible to provide every single university with the facilities such as Harvard/Oxford/or the university that the writer is attending.
    A) Where will the money come from?
    B) Not every Professor is so keen on research. Most Professors just improve upon existing papers and publish new ones. Path-breaking research rarely occurs once people settle in academia.
    C) Lack of resources never denied any truly committed person from achieving their dreams. The students of Dharavi who ace IIT-JEE do not have perfect nice beds to sleep in, abroad-educated teachers or literate parents. Still, the drive to succeed propelled them to find opportunities in the society and utilize it to the point they were successful. The view that the writer endorses only encourages an attitude of spoon-feeding Indian youngsters, doesn’t empower them to fight obstacles and carve their own path out.

    3) a) Already accommodated in existing practice. The kind of government-run universities have the lowest fees in the continent. It is set in a way that a below-middle class person can also afford to have his/her kids educated.
    Assuming your wrong characterization of high fees is an actual issue, there is a governmental directive to all banks to issue educational loans without any collateral, repayable from the time the student graduates. What stops really passionate kids from taking these up? There are also government scholarships for kids from really poor families.
    b) Curiously, if universities were to charge so-low a fee, how are the world-class faculty and research facilities that you determine are so crucial for an effective education supposed to be funded **nationwide**?

    4) Not really an issue. No one is stopping students from taking up internships/working in NGOs/doing research, etc. More of a lack of initiative on students’ part rather than governmental apparatus seeking to prohibit such a trend in society.

    It is a huge assumption to make that all Indian students are hardworking and meritorious. Some of them like to toy around with their lives and it isn’t the government’s fault that they don’t take advantage of the opportunities that are available to them. You can only as much as take a thirsty horse to a well. If the horse refuses to drink, it is not the government’s role/priority to make it do so. There are other support mechanisms such as parents, career counselors, peers to do such things. The Indian government does more than enough to encourage enrolment of students into universities. Sometimes, students should take initiative as well.

    1. Anusya Sriram

      What you intend to be saying here is that India is a big country so the government should just ignore the largest youth of the world and go on with its own functioning i.e. armament in case a war occurs, chances of which are close to zero, unless of course a vindictive government comes into place through this election. I think most people will agree that education is one of the top most priorities in any country in order to maintain a proper, well-functioning civilization.
      You seem to have gone through the QS list, well maybe you haven’t noticed but many Chinese universities also rank much ahead of the Indian universities named in this article, and as of now China’s population is still larger than India’s. So even if you personally don’t wish to equate India and Hong Kong, the logic of the author would still stand.

      I maybe wrong, but I think the point that was made was that if Hong Kong being such a tiny place can contribute 21% of its GDP for higher education, India with the world’s largest youth should definitely put in more effort into educating the young as they will be the future of one of the largest nations in the world.
      I agree with your point that IIT graduates are well respected by many foreign universities and MNCs, but that is the exact sad truth of the country. Only a minuscule percentage of the total youth of India is in this bracket. The rest of the youth is practically dumped into the garbage bins for life. In India if you are not in the top 1%, you go out of the maps for the rest of the world. And that too only for one academic field that is engineering. What about the others? They also deserve quality institutions and quality education. How many students have you heard of coming from non-IIT institutes in India who have gone on to be employed by top MNCs in the world and have led key innovations?

      You yourself admitted we have limited top notch universities. Well that is the problem here isn’t it? Even in Scandinavian countries, while you won’t find a Harvard or Oxford, almost all universities present have a basic standard which is decent enough. In fact, most of the technological research that we take for granted today germinated from those countries. That needs to happen here too. And for that money needs to be invested. So either the government reduced the red tape associated with opening good universities or it needs to take the initiative to do so itself. And this defeats your other point of diluted quality with more institutions. The law of competition says that with more competition, each tries to improve its quality in order to survive. When there is no competition, the ones present in the market turn stale (which is what has happened to many universities in India that were touted to be good earlier).

      Sure only a few students have outstanding curiosity. But are you suggesting that those who don’t should be denied good education? Just because they aren’t as curious as you need students to be, should they not be given an option to have good education? Well, not only is this suggestion as outrageous as the remarks our beloved politicians make, it also reeks of segmentation of students – another key problem plaguing the system.

      The fees aren’t high. But because they are low, we see the problems. Today a rich man and a poor man pay the same fees. With income bracket usage for fees, everyone pays accordingly. So the rich man pays a little more as per his income than the poor man. This way if the poor man’s child is bright but cannot afford the fees, he or she would not have to rely on quotas (which in some ways itself are inefficient) but can get subsidies through scholarships if he or she deserves it. That is the method in which the “American Dream” works that so many Indians crave for.

      People take opportunities when they know they exist. And from where do they get this information? Well from sources, which in this case would be the companies that provide internships. And what would motivate these companies to reach out to the less privileged? If the government took the initiative to launch some schemes that would not only sound nice but also help on ground level. I agree that there are a numerous more suggestions that the author could have put in this article but that doesn’t mean that the aspect of the government that is highlighted in this article is not an issue. I am an assistant professor at a university, and on a basic level most of the arguments here make sense. You may be a benefactor of the doings of the Indian government but the sad truth is that most Indians haven’t been as privileged as you.

  3. Sathish

    The logic of the Hong Kong-India comparison would stand if the 21% GDP investment in Hong Kong helped make Hong Kong an educational paradise, which isn’t necessarily the case. Most students in Hong Kong aren’t able to find places in Hong Kong’s elite universities, and all the issues we discussed in the Indian setting still very much apply to Hong Kong (average students unable to find jobs, most Professors being of poor quality, and so on). Given that this 21% investment isn’t able to reap the benefits, no reason why other countries should follow suit.

    1) I beg to differ that ‘the rest of India’ are dumped into garbage bins for life. There are other equally good government colleges like the NIT, IIITs and other state government and private colleges which cater to the need of the people. The perception that you need to be in an IIT to succeed in life is a pre-2000-age conception. We live in an age where students engage with the best minds in India and the world through inter-college fests, competitions and the internet. College is definitely not a limitation of what a student can do in life, so this “you-are-ruining-rest-of-India” by not putting them in IITs idea is wrong. Look at all the top CEOs of the world. Most of them were dropouts from the best colleges in the world. Innovation and entrepreneurship isn’t fueled by university education. In fact, universities attempt seriously to streamline your thinking process and stress you out with useless activities, so a lax university education isn’t necessarily a deterrent to creativity. Eg: Satya Nadella studied in Manipal, Indra Nooyi studied in Madras Christian College, Abdul Kalam studied in Madras Institute of Technology, CNR Rao studied in Central College, Varun studied in VTU.

    2) Law of competition applies when private universities are competing among themselves. When these are government-owned, there is absolutely no need for them to compete at all. They aren’t profit-driven, they will get students no matter what, they aren’t going to be judged-on-performance and they are there for this idea of education for all. So, I don’t quite get how this kind of mass-university-inauguration-by-governments helps improve quality.

    3) I never said they should be denied a good education. Everyone who wants a good education should get it. But, what the author needs to prove is that the only reason talented, persistent students in India (which comprise a vast majority of students) is because the system failed them. But, this is not necessarily the case. Not everyone values education so much in their late-teenage years. If people take exams carelessly, get shunted to the bad universities, where they make no effort to work on their academics, keep arrears, it isn’t the fault of the state that they don’t get the education of their dreams. It would be unfair to the people who slogged to make it to IITs and it would also dilute the standards reputed institutions enjoy and generally disincentivise people from studying harder during their schooling years. Segregation is a good thing because it challenges students to bring out the best in them (refer to your idea of how competition is good).

    4) Huge leap in logic between companies reaching to out to less privileged and government having to be the person who makes this happen. If you really want something, and given nothing stands between you and your goal to deliberately prevent you from achieving, no justification provided on why students cannot or shouldn’t take the initiative to find their own internships. Go look up the Internet, visit school counselors, talk to friends/Professors (all well within the ability of the most disadvantaged student). Another reason why the Govt shouldn’t do it is a centralised bureaucratic solution to all frustrations of student life will be slow and ineffective and it also disincentives students to carve their future on their own. What students will be getting is delayed sub-standard offers. Rather, if they put in their own efforts, they develop this attitude of independent problem solving and will be exposed to the huge plethora of opportunities out there in the world.

    Great rebuttals. But, I still believe it isn’t the state’s role to figure out all the good things in the world for you. It would be utopia if it did but this is not logistically possible or effective. Given this characterisation, student should understand the limitations of the society and seek to solve their frustrations on their own, rather than wait for a silver lining to magically appear out of nowhere.

    P.S: I studied in a Kendriya Vidyalaya in Chennai. For generations, we were exposed to ordinary standards of teaching. We didn’t go for expensive private tutoring and all the benefits that the author proposed didn’t really happen to us. We did get info on some good opportunities, but we had to hunt for the most on our own. Despite this, we had the AISSE national topper twice, our students topped national entrance exams and so many of our alumni study in universities abroad. Spoon-feeding isn’t necessarily the solution. Let the market mechanism work, the hardworking resourceful students will ultimately benefit in the end.

  4. Ash K

    YES, I do agree with you(Amrita Roy)….But not completely. What I Mean to say is, Rote Learning is a kind of learning, there is absolutely no denying in it….But still what sense does that sort of learning make, How do you use the Knowledge of that Rote learning in your Daily Life to Reinvent or Discover or Build Something and make a Graceful use of it????….You can’t…. and if your thinking that I am wrong, then you have no Idea about the Difference Between ROTE LEARNING and THE REAL EDUCATION…This sort of Rote Learning only helps you Crack the various Board Examinations and Competitive Examinations…But they won’t Prepare You For LIFE………..That’s Why nowadays We have no big Inventions or Discoveries In INDIA……….

  5. Dharya

    From the past 5 years I have been studying in Hong Kong and I want to give my two cents on the above article:

    1) Rankings: HK University are top while India doesn’t even come close to them, because HK has a lot more foreign enrollment than India!
    Also India doesn’t accept the HKDSE while Hong Kong accepts all CBSE/ICSE. That just shows why the rankings are biased!

    2) Streams: I left India before I could choose a stream (I left India in IX). HK is a little better with the subject choosing, which allows more
    freedom as you can choose individual subjects. However, the core subjects are a big pain!

    3) Only 1 Major Exan: HKDSE is the only exam to give, while India still allows board exams in 10th!

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