Thursday, October 04, 2012

Can U.S. Universities Stay on Top?

India and China are still far behind in elite education, but they are scrambling to catch up

At the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi—one of the best engineering academies in the country—we met Shriram, a 21-year-old man who ranked 19 out of 485,000 on the school's very demanding entrance exam. We call him Mr. Number 19.

Shriram can tell you the date and time when he found out his test results. The exam—and the preparation for it—dominated his teenage years. He was singled out as a "big talent" at an early age, with an aptitude for mathematics and science. To get ready for the IIT entrance exam, he enrolled at a private coaching institute that prepares students with aggressive drilling in the major testing areas—physics, chemistry and math. Over those two years, Shriram estimates that he studied 90 hours every week.

When Shriram arrived at the IIT, he found a class filled with academic superstars. The faculty has high expectations. On the first math exam, his freshman class received an average grade of 30%. Shriram did poorly too but soon bounced back, sacrificing sleep so that he could study. "All my life I wanted to be here," he says. "I knew that if I could go to IIT, major in engineering, work and study hard, my life would be perfect. I would marry a beautiful girl, start a company, help my country advance and deliver on my family's hopes and dreams."

Both India and China have intense national testing programs to find the brightest students for their elite universities. The competition, the preparation and the national anxiety about the outcomes make the SAT testing programs in the U.S. seem like the minor leagues. The stakes are higher in China and India. The "chosen ones"—those who rank in the top 1%—get their choice of university, putting them on a path to fast-track careers, higher incomes and all the benefits of an upper-middle-class life.

The system doesn't work so well for the other 99%. There are nearly 40 million university students in China and India. Most attend institutions that churn out students at low cost. Students complain that their education is "factory style" and "uninspired." Employers complain that many graduates need remedial training before they are fully employable.

For now, the U.S. university system is still far ahead. But over the next decade, there will be a global competition to educate the next generation, and China and India have the potential to change the balance of power. With large pools of qualified students coming of age, the two countries have made reforming their universities a top priority.

How far do they have to go? At the Boston Consulting Group, we have developed a new ranking to determine the educational competitiveness of countries: the BCG E4 Index. It is based on four Es: Expenditure (the level of investment in education by government and private households); enrollment (the number of students in the educational system); engineers (the number of qualified engineers entering the workforce), and elite institutions (the number of top global higher-education institutions).

The U.S. and the U.K. are ranked first and second, driven by raw spending, their dominance in globally ranked universities and engineering graduation rates. China ranks third and India fifth, largely on enrollment (Germany is fourth). The reasons for U.S. supremacy are clear: For one, it spends the most money on education, disbursing $980 billion annually, or twice as much as China and five times as much as India. It is also the most engineer-intensive country, with 981 engineering degrees per million citizens, compared with 553 for China and 197 for India.

American universities currently do a better job overall at preparing students for the workforce. The World Economic Forum estimates that 81% of U.S. engineering graduates are immediately "employable," while only 25% of Indian graduates and 10% of Chinese graduates are equally well prepared. "Chinese students can swarm a problem," a dean at a major Chinese university told us. "But when it comes to original thought and invention, we stumble. We are trying hard to make that up. We are trying to make technical education the grounding from which we solve problems."

In China, Peking University, founded in 1898, is generally ranked as the country's top school. One student there told us in a very serious tone: "Good luck finding a place in the library. You can't find a seat even at three in the morning."

Peking University is now part of an effort launched in 2009 to create a Chinese counterpart to the Ivies—called the C9 League. The objective is to attract the best graduates and faculty with an array of super-funded institutions. The schools recently received $270 million each in government funding, and they are also drawing back "sea turtles"—Chinese Ph.D.s from abroad—to lead the renaissance, with relocation bonuses as high as $150,000.

Though the C9 schools have the greatest potential to break into the global elite, Chinese officials also identified 100 key universities at the next level, where they have invested a total of $2.8 billion.

The difference in student quality between these tiers is often insignificant. The Gaokao is China's national educational test, given to 10 million secondary students to determine their rank and placement at university. The top scorers become national celebrities. But critics say that the test's emphasis on memorization, fact recall and processing speed can determine college admissions too arbitrarily. "I did not feel well the day of the test," one recent graduate told us. "As a result I placed in the top 10%, not good enough to get into the C9. I felt like my life was over."

Compared with China, India has farther to go. A senior dean at IIT Delhi said that he deals daily with shortages of equipment, poor pay for teachers and quotas that sometimes put students who can't read or speak English in the classroom. (The quotas are meant as a remedy for the caste system.) "We are underfunded, we have too few Ph.D.s on faculty, and we have a fifth of our enrollment taken by quota with no remedial programs," he lamented in his hot, open office.

One of the reasons for the underfunding is the relative weakness of India's central government, which accounts for only 15% of total expenditure on education. The 28 states that account for the balance vary greatly by wealth and infrastructure. But unlike China, India has significant private education, with nearly 200,000 private schools and 17,000 private colleges. The World Bank and private investors are pouring billions of dollars into education there, and the government plans to expand its best-known universities, as well as community colleges. The current five-year plan proposes higher-education investments of more than $18 billion.

Even with the current push, the combined higher-education resources of India and China will just begin to match the $32 billion endowment of Harvard alone. But success in these countries is based as much on attitude as on funds. The IIT's Mr. Number 19 represents a generation of driven, talented students who are intent on improving their lives. In one student's room at Peking University, the commitment to advancement is summed up with a phrase on a poster board: "If you work hard enough, you can grind an iron rod into a needle."


Rise in British tuition fees puts 30,000 off university: Shortfall could cost colleges hundreds of millions

The number of students starting university has slumped by around 30,000 following the imposition of £9,000-a-year tuition fees.

The disclosure will fuel claims that the Coalition Government’s steep rise in maximum fees from £3,375 a year is deterring many youngsters from taking degree courses.

The shortfall of 28,634 students on last year is also set to cost universities hundreds of millions of pounds in lost fees and force the closure of struggling courses.

If overseas students from outside the European Union were stripped out of the data, the decline would be even sharper.

Demand for UK university places from home undergraduates and students from the EU – many of whom faced a near-tripling in tuition fees – has plummeted by 50,000.

Universities offset this to some extent by boosting their intake of students from outside the EU, whose fee levels are largely unchanged on last year.

The Universities UK group said more institutions had attempted to attract students through the post A-level results ‘clearing’ service than ever before.

‘Although there was much anticipation and trepidation in the run up to clearing this year, it has proved a real success,’ it said.

‘More institutions have entered clearing than in any other year.’

Figures from the UCAS university admissions service, cited by UUK, show that the number of students accepted through clearing rose by around 2,500.

Many elite universities used the system for the first time in years, partly due to an unexpected drop in the number of top grades at A-level this summer.

Reports also emerged of lower-ranking universities enrolling teenagers onto courses with as little as two E grades at A-level, prompting claims that ill-prepared youngsters were being ‘set up to fail’.

The UCAS figures also show that more than 187,000 candidates who made initial university applications ended up without places.

Admissions tutors say that many of these students - who were officially eligible for clearing - simply never materialised.

It is thought many fired off applications and only then began to fully understand the costs involved and failed to take the process forward.

Of the 187,000, 16,000 formally withdrew their applications, giving an increase in withdrawals of nearly 1,800 on last year.

The data will prompt universities to carefully consider their fee levels for future years.

Controversial Coalition reforms allowed them to raise maximum annual charges this year from £3,375 to £9,000, although no money has to be paid upfront.

While headline fees for 2013/14 have already been decided, universities may be tempted to offer more generous bursaries or fee discounts.

In its analysis, UUK, which represents the executive heads of the country’s universities, said the reasons for the decline in acceptances this year - which amounts to about 6 per cent of last year’s 486,917 crop of students - were ‘complex’.

Researchers said the trend was partly driven by youngsters who applied for degree courses last year cancelling plans for gap years to avoid being liable for higher fees due to kick in this autumn.

There had also been a fall in the population of 18-year-olds following a dip in the birth rate.

But higher fees are still estimated to have put off an estimated 15,000 18-year-olds, and unknown numbers of older students.

‘UUK will continue to monitor closely how the picture evolves and the impact on institutions,’ it said.

In the final few hours of UCAS vacancy listings yesterday, more than 20,000 courses across UK universities and colleges still had available places.

These included several top universities such as York, Lancaster and Leicester. Some universities, mainly former polytechnics, still had vacancies on 200 or more courses.

While the course vacancy search has now closed, would-be freshers still have until October 22 to contact universities directly if they wish to inquire about available places.

The decline in acceptances prompted a leading headmaster to warn that British universities were seeing a worsening ‘brain drain’ to U.S. institutions.

'A number of factors - financial, educational, cultural - have come together to persuade some of the great talents of this generation to seek their fortune in the U.S.'

‘We are seeing the end of the inexorable rise in numbers going to universities in the UK.

‘A number of factors - financial, educational, cultural - have come together to persuade some of the great talents of this generation to seek their fortune in the U.S.

‘As numbers fall here all but the most selective UK universities will lower their offers as they seek to fill places. The consequences are predictable.’


Australia:  The dumb teacher problem

Getting someone to stand up in front of an undisciplined rabble of a class is such an unappealing prospect in Australia and America today that education departments often have to take almost anyone who will do it.  The teachers' colleges would be amost  empty if high standards were required for admission

The nation's elite universities warn that Australia is at risk of training a generation of "toxic teachers" who will pass their own deficiencies at school on to their students.

The executive director of the Group of Eight research-focused universities, Michael Gallagher, said Australia was "at risk of producing a cohort of "toxic teachers".

"The next generation of teachers is being drawn from this pool" of people "who have themselves not been very successful at school," he said.

Much of the growth in teaching enrolments since 2007 has come from school leavers with scores in the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) range of 50 to 70, prompting the NSW Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, to start a debate about minimum education standards for teachers. At present, some 20 per cent of teaching enrolments have an ATAR of less than 60.

The Australian Catholic University vice chancellor, Greg Craven, however, has warned any attempt to set minimum standards for entry into teaching courses, such as an ATAR of 70, would be an attack on universities' independence and encounter stiff resistance. He accused the NSW government of dishonesty, hypocrisy, cowardice and blame shifting in its effort to start a debate about teaching standards.

In a speech to be delivered at the National Press Club today, Professor Craven will criticise Mr Piccoli's July discussion paper, Great Teaching, Inspired Learning, for fudging the figures around the demand for permanent teachers, lamenting teacher quality while paying them so little, failing to confront teacher unions over work practices that protect low performance, and attempting to shift blame to universities.

Professor Craven takes particular issue with the assertion that NSW has "a gross oversupply" of teachers.

The NSW discussion paper says although about 5500 teachers graduate each year, only 300 to 500 of them are employed in permanent positions by the NSW Education Department.

This not only omits teachers employed in the large Catholic and independent school systems but hides the reality that "the department itself deliberately has casualised its workforce, so new teachers overwhelmingly go into 'casual positions' that actually may be full time", Professor Craven said.

About 30,000 casual teachers deliver about 2 million days of teaching in NSW a year.

He said ATAR scores were skewed against people from low socio-economic backgrounds and failed to predict success at university.

"What really matters is the quality of a student once they have completed their university degree, not when they enter it … Trying to determine who should be a teacher on the basis of adolescent school marks rather than practical and theoretical training received during their course is like selecting the Australian cricket team on school batting averages while ignoring Sheffield Shield innings", Professor Craven said.

The president of the NSW Teachers Federation, Maurie Mulheron, said: "You can't talk about high teaching standards and professional respect at the same time you are pulling $1.7 billion out of public education".

Mr Piccoli is overseas and unavailable for comment, but a spokesman for the NSW Department of Education defended the discussion paper.

He said university training of teachers was only one of five areas it examined, but acknowledged there is wide variation in the ATAR scores of undergraduates.

"The issues of further improving teacher performance and how to even more effectively deal with those who consistently fail to meet the required professional standards are raised by the paper," he said.


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