Breaking the perception barrier


THE two most populous countries of the world—China and India—have a flourishing bilateral trade that has reached nearly $75 billion in 2011 and is expected to cross the $100 billion mark by 2015. However, the economic activism has not translated into higher education partnerships.


Mirroring the size of the population, China and India have the two largest higher education systems in the world with a total enrollment of 29.1 million and 26.7 million students, respectively. However, the partnerships in the higher education sector are few and far between.


What explains this gap? In addition to the obvious factors like language and cultural barriers, perceptual barriers about quality contribute to the lack of higher education partnerships between China and India. These barriers are confounded by the different structures of higher education systems and allocation of family resources on a child’s higher education.


At the structural level, Indian higher education system is highly concentrated at the undergraduate (bachelor’s) degree level. In fact, with 19.8 million students, it is the largest system in the world in terms of undergraduate enrollment as compared to 12.7 million in China and 10.4 million in the U.S.


This concentration at undergraduate level indicates a socio-cultural environment which perceives bachelor’s degree as a prestigious pathway. Thus, many in India are willing to pursue a poor quality undergraduate degree instead of pursuing a top quality vocational education.


While this hierarchy of education exists in many other countries, it is very acute in India. This socio-cultural difference becomes even more complicated due to inadequacies at the policy level which creates islands of excellence but does not inculcate quality in the higher education system as a whole.


In contrast, China expanded its higher education by not only providing opportunities at the vocational level by engaging the masses through low-cost, volume-based manufacturing but also invested heavily in creating world class universities through initiatives like Project 985 which includes 39 universities striving for global excellence.



As a result, China beats India on account of both access and excellence. In terms of access, China enrolls nearly 9.6 million students in vocational education as compared to 4 million in India. Likewise, in terms of world universities rankings and research production, Chinese universities are gaining prominence whereas Indian universities are lagging behind. Despite the success of Chinese higher education, many Indian institutions find it tough to reach out to China about partnering in vocational or research universities due to perceptual barriers.



Another factor complicating the situation is the differences of family unit. Given the single child policy in China, financial resources in a family are concentrated on one child, unlike India where financial resources are shared among siblings. This concentration of resources creates an expectation among the Chinese families to get the best quality of foreign education for their child, while Indian families have to be content with the best they can afford.


Both the Chinese and Indians are seeking quality foreign education, but with differential level of affordability and they find western destinations to be offering more value as compared to what they can offer each other. This translates into higher number of partnerships from China and India with the US and the UK as compared to those among themselves.


To sum up, both Chinese and Indian higher education has its own context, priorities and limitations. However, there are significant opportunities of collaboration and growth between the two countries and a lot needs to be done to facilitate them. Proactive initiatives to break perceptual barriers which go beyond the language and cultural barriers should be one such priority at policy, institutional and individual level, so that both India and China do not lose sight of the enormous potential and synergies in higher education partnerships with each other. ?