Events

Rethinking Education in China: Lessons from the Post-Mao Period

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Recent years have witnessed mingled alarm and envy in the West at the supposed excellence of China’s education system – epitomised by Shanghai’s PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) success. But much public discussion of the context for that success, and of the nature of the education system that has produced it, remains worryingly superficial.

On 7 September 2017, Professor Edward Vickers, Professor of Comparative Education at the Kyushu University, Japan, re-examined the educational record of China during the four decades of ‘Reform and Opening’, and how the role assigned to education in political socialisation carries potential threats for the country’s stability.

Prof Vickers began by addressing the image of Chinese educational “success” particularly perceived by western countries, and challenging this perception by evaluating it through different lenses. He introduced four of such perspectives: orthodox (or official), anti-globalist, practice-oriented, and critical views.

The Post-Mao educational agenda was driven by goals towards sociopolitical stability by maintaining party control, and prosperity by offering various constituencies a stake on the status quo and to boost the party state’s resources. The state’s underlying instrumentalist vision of citizenship converges with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) “human capital” orientation, with OECD promoting China as a model of a “high performance”.

Indeed, Shanghai students outperformed those from other education systems based on OECD’s metrics. However how much of this success translates to workplace productivity and economic growth is much more difficult to measure. The intense pursuit for credentials have affected the lives of young learners and of the concept of learning itself, as studies for purposes other than exam success is actively discouraged by teachers and parents. This has resulted in intrinsically low motivation to study among young learners. This has, in turn, encouraged more privileged parents to send their children to study overseas for a more rounded and less regimental education.

Official responsiveness to the different social constituencies has varied widely. China’s hukou system of household registrations allows the state to cater separately to the interest of different social segments, minimising the chances of these groups to come together and challenge the status quo. Therefore, different groups are granted different access to education.

There are also concerns that the education system does not encourage innovative and creative talents that is economically and strategically essential. The highly standardised education system cannot deliver the skills required in knowledge economies, which prompted the 2001 curriculum reforms in China and the 2020 education reform strategy. However, such efforts to reduce educational intensity run up against the reality of a largely unreformed examination systems and labour markets.

Patriotic education, while serving as a means to promote loyalty to the ruling party, has important implications on capabilities beyond economics, such as access to information and freedom to participate in improving communal life. Such capabilities are instrumentally and intrinsically valuable as this allows communities to make better collective decisions in the long run.

The talk ended with Prof Vickers addressing the audience’s questions, including the similarities and differences among East Asian countries, where he thinks China is headed in terms of its education system, and if the country can meaningfully contribute new knowledge to the world.