China must nurture a new generation of beautiful minds

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

South China Morning Post, July 16, 2014

Frank-Jürgen Richter says online courses can offer global outlook needed

China’s demographic dividend is over. It has few spare labourers and over half the population now lives in towns. The government has long acknowledged this change. It has also recognised that massive rural-to-urban migration would continue, typical of a developing nation in transition.

There is the great game of Go being played out by the Chinese. On the global stage, winning would mean being able to coexist and cooperate with all other nations equally, yet intermediate development stages will come as a shock to the casual observer.

We have seen steady economic growth enabled by a change from outright state control to guided development. Vast high-speed rail and modern road links are in place. And new trade accords have been negotiated to safeguard China’s importing of energy resources and raw materials. All in all, we can suppose that China is becoming a developed nation.

One must therefore presume that its education programme is altering fundamentally – to support not only the basics but also instilling broad cognitive skills that support novel thinking, innovation and entrepreneurship.

As the global economy grew, and as the demand for goods was met by Asian nations that became the assemblers for the world (in particular, China), officials weakened education development to promote low value-added skills.

I am sure Chinese education officials are aware of global trends. In the 1990s, they rolled out two separate projects, one aimed at raising the research standards of their top universities, and the other an attempt to create world-class universities.

Today, China’s many hundreds of universities produce over seven million graduates a year. But curriculums remain too centrally determined, with not enough acceptance of outside learning.

A solution may come in the form of massive open online courses. These permit global access to lectures created by well-qualified presenters that are often free, allowing anyone to develop. The downsides are the lack of accreditation and the widespread difficulty of comprehending complexity in advanced courses – so dropouts are common.

A further issue is that courses have to be modified for local languages and accommodate ethnic and religious aspects. There needs to be full internet provision and access, with no content restriction. Potential students also need time and the means to travel to mentors, who themselves need good training.

The big question today is how to manage wealth creation in an equitable manner. China’s great education need is to lift the abilities of everyone – to spur creativity and knowledge sharing. Well-presented massive open online courses should be able to do this.

If global leaders strongly support education provision, their nations will become better and more productive. But if they ignore the perils, they will soon be overwhelmed by a two-fold issue.

At home, vast swathes will become unemployed in an increasingly technology-mediated world. Second, developed nations are ageing faster, relatively, than Asian nations and as their working populations reduce, they will lose productive capacity.

Effective global development will be determined by Asian governments’ near-term response to their own mass education issues. “Education for all” is not only the UN’s clarion call, but can be viewed as a global economic imperative.

Frank-Jürgen Richter is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global visions community which hosts the annual Global China Business Meeting.