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China 20 years ahead but India can compete with NEP 2020

New Delhi: A study that seeks to compare elementary education in India and China, which jointly account for about a third of the world’s population, suggests that the former is about 20 years behind its neighbour in terms of taking policy steps towards quality schooling.

The study — a working paper published last month by the Finland-based think tank, United Nations University’s World Institute for Development Economics and Research (UNU-WIDER) — was conducted by two scholars, Naveen Kumar of the University of California San Diego and Vinitha Varghese of the University of Illinois, Chicago.

It seeks to explore “key lessons” India can learn from China, which shifted its focus from ‘quantity’ to ‘quality’ two decades before India’s new National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 came into effect.

The authors say China’s adoption of the “New Curriculum Reform 20 years before India’s NEP 2020 has put China on the path to achieving equitable development of ‘quality’ compulsory schooling”.

However, it adds that “NEP 2020 has components that have the potential to improve quality, equity, and efficiency of the education system”.

India’s ‘late realisation’

In the 1950s, the study says, India and China were almost on the same level in terms of approach to education — focusing on higher education, especially science and technology.

However, according to the study, in the 1960s, China prioritised overcoming illiteracy while India continued to emphasize higher education in science and technology. India brought free and compulsory education in the form of the Right to Education (RTE) in 2009, decades after China did, the study notes.

As a result, between 1961 and 1981, China’s literacy rate rose to 68 per cent from 43 per cent, while India’s reached 41 per cent from 28 per cent in the same period.

India’s focus on higher education came at the cost of “addressing mass illiteracy”, says the study, adding that this issue was further exacerbated by “unequal access to education”.

The gaps between the two countries’ literacy rates have since narrowed. According to the World Bank, by 2018, India had a literacy rate of 74 per cent while China’s was 97 per cent.

The UNU-WIDER study notes that most of India’s improvement in literacy has happened in recent years, while China has had an edge for the last thirty years.

“China has been close to the 100 per cent mark since the early 1990s and India improved from a 62 per cent literacy rate (of the 15-24 years age group) in 1990 to 92 per cent in 2018. The difference in gains made in youth literacy rates boils down to India being late to the game of primary education policies,” it says.