Many development theorists emphasize the role of education as a factor to promoting economic development. While there is no sole way to go about development, education has proven to be one of the driving forces in fast-growing countries, particularly the Newly Industrialized Countries (NICs) in Asia. However, it seems the Asian education system will soon become the stumbling block of the NICs.
Education is a serious endeavor in these countries. Confucian values and the meritocratic structure of society collectively emphasize the role of education in one’s future success. China, South Korea and Singapore have made primary education compulsory. All three countries hold national college examinations, a yearly high-stakes examination that college-aspiring students sit for. In the event that these students obtain unsatisfactory results, they will be denied admission to prestigious universities and will have to wait an entire year before they can retake the exams. Repeaters are not looked upon favorably.
So the struggle begins.
Nine hour school days, extra remedial classes, praying parents, superstitious practices, and even the grounding of aircraft; anything to give these students a leg up in life. South Korean government employees stake out hagwons (for profit cram schools) to ensure that they are not operating after 10 at night, an initiative instated by President Lee Myung Bak to relieve stress on Korean students and ensure they get sufficient rest. Immensely profitable private tutoring centers have sprung up all over Asia, and the competitive nature of education in these countries compels students to attend additional classes after school has ended. The average amount of time spent in school and extra classes by these students often exceed the hours their parents spend at work.
It seems these education policies have worked. The economic growth for South Korea, Singapore and China has been nothing short of impressive. The Profile for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted by the OECD consistently ranks South Korea, China (represented by Shanghai) and Singapore within the top 5 countries – meaning that students from both countries outperform other countries when it comes to reading, math and science scores.
However, the education initiatives of these countries have recently come under fire for various reasons. Apple’s co-founder, Steve Wozniak, recently claimed that a company like Apple would not be able to develop in Singapore, where people are not encouraged to be creative and think out of the box. China’s graduates have found it immensely difficult to find a job that justifies the investment on higher education. South Korea faces the challenge of curbing the high suicide rates that plague its teenage students, who are unable to cope with the stress of getting into university. All three countries also face a declining birth-rate, because more women are entering the workforce and having children later on in life.
This begs the question – where should governments draw the line when it comes to education? There is little doubt that a highly educated populace is an important factor in spurring economic growth, with economic journals publishing articles on preventing brain drain and the need for labor-intensive industries to shift to capital-intensive industries. Research has also shown for developing countries, it is necessary to invest in both primary and secondary education to achieve economic growth. However, in the case of China, where a university graduate’s salary is two-thirds that of a 20 year old courier boy in Beijing, when is one’s level of education considered too high?
It also raises the question of what a quality education constitutes. Should the demands of a country’s economy dictate what a quality education is? For all three Asian countries, rote memorization is the name of the game. Many educators have criticized this approach, saying self-expression, critical thinking and creativity is lost. Yet, rote learning is credited with learning self-discipline and skills of concentration. What is, then, the ‘right’ combination and which method should governments of developing countries pick?
Perhaps, as with development, there is no sole way to go about education. When it comes to education policies, what is one country’s cup of tea might not be another’s.