China, West looking to each other for lessons
Published: Feb 27, 2014 06:13 PM

Illustration: Lu Ting/GT

Thursday morning, on my way to work, I heard about a recent court case on the radio. Apparently a Shandong Province-based associate professor came to Shanghai this week to repay a loan owed to the local university where he obtained his master's degree in 2004.

This unidentified man applied for the loan in question back in 2002 to fund his postgraduate studies. After earning his degree, he then left Shanghai without leaving his contact information with his creditors. His name, subsequently, was added to a database of individuals with poor credit records.

Finally, nearly 10 years after his graduation, this man was back in Shanghai to settle his old debt - which, of course, had expanded well beyond the original principal thanks to interest costs and other fees. Why would he be willing to pay now?

According to the court, a mortgage application he had filed in Shandong had been rejected because of his delinquent credit history. To remove this black spot from record, he had little choice but to settle his debt in Shanghai. The good news for this man is that he may now qualify for a mortgage loan as early as 2019, provided that the house he has his eye on is still on the market at that time.

The story of this associate professor made quite an impression on me. Many in the public - myself included - are inclined to associate high academic achievement with high moral character.

Such beliefs remind me of the heated debates surrounding last year's fatal Fudan University poisoning incident. Here one postgraduate medical student poisoned his roommate, another medical postgraduate. Traditional and new media outlets have closely followed this tragedy, which has also been the subject of this very column on several occasions. Time and again, the discussion has turned to our educational system and the talents and traits it cultivates.

Whenever a problem occurs, it's reasonable to seek out the root cause of the issue and thus China's educational system is inevitably made a target due to its fundamental role in shaping impressionable minds. Aside from the family, few institutions attract as much attention and criticism as our schools.

This places Chinese educational authorities in a weak and awkward position as the public continues to disparage the gaokao (national college entrance examinations) system, the college English level testing system, the emphasis on the English language in the national curriculum and just about every other facet of local education.

But in recent years, concepts from the Chinese education system have gained recognition and admiration abroad thanks to the PISA, or the Programme for International Student Assessment.

Students from Shanghai schools were assessed with the PISA in 2010 and 2013. On both occasions, Shanghai students handily bested their peers in 65 other countries and regions in subjects such as math, reading and science.

These results have caused quite a stir overseas, especially in the UK, where many columnists bemoaned the shortcomings of the British education system and advocated the need for reforms. More recently, news broke that British Education and Childcare Minister Elizabeth Truss is paying a visit to Shanghai to learn from her Chinese counterparts.

These events reflect a controversial reality.

Despite strong performances from schools in Shanghai, tens of thousands of Chinese parents send their children overseas every year for primary, secondary and higher education in Western countries such as the US, the UK, Canada and Australia. It seems that any corner of the Earth will do, as long as it's not in China.

At the same time, millions of university graduates flood the domestic job market every year. We can only assume that the unemployment rate of these newly minted diploma-holders is quite high since demand for educated talent has thinned with China's economic slowdown.

I have reason to believe that the situation in the West may be just as pessimistic. If not, there would be no need for foreign columnists or officials to react so passionately toward the perceived gap in academic achievement.

Here I have to mention one eye-catching headline from the Daily Mail's website: "Middle-class British pupils are worse at maths than children of Shanghai cleaners: Youngsters from deprived backgrounds in Chinese city are year ahead of children in the UK."

Is this article meant to suggest that children from middle-class families must be superior to lower-class ones, even within the same country? Or that people from developed countries must outperform those from the less developed ones? If these are the claims being advanced, then what lessons can be learned from China as long as such prideful claims toward superiority persist?

It's widely recognized that knowledge changes fate and genius, as the saying goes, is "1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." When the West is looking east and the East is looking west for ways to improve their educational systems, both sides need open minds to recognize their own problems and tackle their shortcomings logically.

The author is the managing editor of Global Times Metro Shanghai.