The grand education debate
July 13, 2012

Education ministers in both India and China are scratching their foreheads trying to ascertain a way to judge the best talent in their countries. Decades of competitive exams which have sought to separate the intelligent from the clever need to be re-looked at as both neighbors seek to nurture talent to lead the world.

While China’s gaokao exams which demarcate who gets into which prestigious university, are as rigorous as the IIT-JEE in India which determine which student can get into the nations most coveted technology institutes. Academicians are re-assessing the criteria on the basis of which students are admitted. Both nations are looking at re-engineering their crucial entrance exams so as to admit a healthy mix of students that not only excel in mathematics, the sciences or engineering but also in the arts, literature and imagination.

Heads of India’s IIT institutes which are spread across the nation, have a tough decision on their hands, of the approximately 1,200,00 candidates, only the top 1.50,000 qualify. Similarly, though each year more students go to Chinese university (the admission rate is up 3 percent this year) spots at elite institutions are oversubscribed. Less than 0.2 percent of gaokao takers will get into China’s top five universities. A competition heats up, it also fuels the evil industries of side lying coaching classes which fleece students with the promise of a coveted seat. It also increases pressure on the government which has to create more jobs, at a time when the economy is dropping.

Nonetheless, students will continue to sit these exams and out themselves through the torturous test. For many the test is a ticket out of their small town homes, a chance for their families to live a better life, move to the city and acquire that for which they have aspired all these years. Its their only chance at rising up in society.

The education debate has been a long and tedious one, a challenge nobody has yet succeeded in winning. A few years ago, backed by a documentary by Robert A. Compton entitled 2 million minutes, the amount of time an average student spends at a US High school, America criticised her education system accusing it of being too liberal, slack and laid back as compared to Chinese and Indian systems which pushed and prodded their students to perform, or excel beyond their parents dreams. More recently a book, the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother portrayed at first hand the rigours of being a Chinese, or for that matter even an Indian student.

While the US system blamed itself for not churning out enough scientists for the future, the Indian and Chinese systems have been criticized for being too demanding on their kids. Whats difficult to retain though is a middle ground. How can we ascertain that the people who will propel this world forward will be well balanced individuals, scientists with an imagination, poets with a love for physics or gymnasts that will build houses on the moon?

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