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China’s education policy an example for SA

Published Jun 17, 2022

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Paul Tembe

It is a well-won truism that innovation is what separates successful countries from their competitors. By its very nature, innovation is an essential ingredient to a country’s economic standing, its capacity for production of new ideas and technologies and its ability to address and transcend its crises points. An indispensably vital element to innovation, inarguably, is the country’s educational system and how it can convert innovation into a functional instrument for engendering solutions. The two, education and innovation, depend largely on public and private investments in the youth, who are the largest beneficiaries and drivers of education and innovation.

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This explains why President Xi Jinping, and all his predecessors in the Communist Party of China (CPC), have single-handedly emphasised education and training. In his own words, more recently President Xi said that “a nation will prosper only when its young people thrive; a country will be full of hope and have a great tomorrow only when its younger generations have ideals, ability and a strong sense of responsibility”. As the Republic of South Africa celebrates in June its Youth Month, the relevance and reverberations of these words are ever stronger.

Since the advancement of youth, in education and assisting them realise their economic potential, remains a dream deferred in post-1994 RSA, which lessons can be drawn from the PRC, bearing in mind the marked differences between these two countries that, fortunately, are all-weather friends?

Firstly, though, a context into which education indices explain the reason why the PRC is acclaimed for its unparalleled achievements since the 1978 opening up and reform period. In a country of 1.4 billion people with a purchasing power parity of $23 trillion (by 2020 estimates), the PRC has now eliminated illiteracy among its young and adult population.

Using 2020 OECD figures, this illiteracy-ending campaign was made possible by the fact the PRC is a country with the world’s largest education system catering for 270 million students and dependent on 16 million teachers.

This contrasts with the high drop-out rates in the RSA even before the advent of the Covid-19 health and economic pandemic. In fact, the latest statistics are material for a horror story if you learn that the pandemic has exacerbated school drop-outs here at home. For instance, Unicef reports that the number of out-of-school children tripled from 250 000 to 750 000 between March 2020 and July 2021.

Secondly, the resolutely laser focus on policy implementation has greatly assisted the PRC to become the world’s second economic powerhouse and a leader in science and technological research which has, importantly, shifted from mere rote learning and testing to knowledge application. More recently for example, in 2019, China unveiled what it terms “China’s Education Modernisation Plan 2035”. This plan, already doggedly being implemented, highlights accessibility to quality education for preschoolers to the higher education echelons. It has a special dedicated focus on vocational training that has seen, in 2020, China having 11 500 vocational schools catering to close to 29 million students.

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As the RSA decides on which educational path to pursue in this Covid-19 new normal, without a doubt, vocational training is our best route to address unemployment, seemingly, heading to 40% of the population. This is not a sustainable status quo if political freedom has to have currency and also the ideal of building a socially cohesive society. In fact, this is a ripe context for mass rebellion and anomie that is reflected in the record-high incidents of violent crime and homicide.

Equally, China’s Education Modernisation Plan 2035 also highlights investing in online learning and enabling digital technologies. In the Covid-19 era, this is a sensible investment whereby education technology (EdTech) in China has witnessed from 2010 to 2021 the PRC pumping $10 billion into EdTech, an amount that is according to Holon IQ “twice the amount of the US, six times that of India, and 10 times that of Europe”.

Digital infrastructure is an obvious, easy policy win in the RSA, which has the advantage of its young majority population (its demographic dividend) that is, unfortunately, locked out of limitless opportunities accruing from coding, 3-D printing and robotics. Is it any wonder, therefore, that the Middle Kingdom is a world competitor, if not a leader, in software app development, gaming and advanced toy-making with the likes of Baidu (research information), Tencent (video streaming), Weibo, WeChat and so on?

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In the final analysis, it is possible for the RSA to reach the educational levels and EdTech standards of the PRC. After all, our country is already ranked among the biggest spenders on education! What is tragic is that this investment has not provided and translated to value-for-money for the country and its citizens. This failure for a utilitarian return and value can be corrected if several urgent structural interventions are made.

One, in the 21st century it is an unshakeable fact that science and technology are the most practical subject fields policymakers should focus on. This is in addition to equal investment (resource, training, technology) in vocational training instead of the romantic fascination with non-science subject fields.

Two, the training and retraining of teachers should not be debatable if they are to remain competitive in the marketplace of innovation-education and stimulating economic growth.

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Third, policy schizophrenia here at home is not an option that should be tolerated any longer. Policies should be relevant, implemented and their impact monitored instead of the smorgasbord of policies that change at a whim of the sitting executive political principal.

Fourth, education should be divorced from impractical policy prescriptions which, sadly, condemn generations of students to illiteracy and innumeracy as it is the case here in RSA, where our young people clamour for sensible education-innovation investments.

China is not an anomaly in its unprecedented achievements in human endeavour. It simply chose sensible policies and stuck to their implementation. It was the least its leaders could do to, in the words of President Xi, encourage students to “stay hungry for knowledge, cultivate the spirit of science, study hard and commit to practice”.

*Tembe is a Sinologist and founder of SELE Encounters.

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