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The Importance of Public Education in Expanding Access: A Comparison of China and India

published 28 January 2016 updated 28 January 2016
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Fifteen years. What can the world accomplish in fifteen years? The optimistic but compressed timelines of the recently completed Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and current Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) push the international community and individual countries to make drastic changes to their provision and quality of education in just fifteen years. Central to both set of goals is the universal expansion of access to either primary (MDGs) or secondary (SDGs) education. The rapid expansion of schooling in the developing world is unprecedented and with global resources to primary and secondary education stagnating and a large domestic funding gap remaining, some wonder if alternative pathways might provide a more clear direction toward universal education.

In our recently published work, we conducted a structured, focused comparison of the development of two countries that together make up approximately 45% of the world’s school age population, China and India. Looking over a sixty year period we were able to compare the predominately public school approach adopted in China with the public-private mixed approach used by India. Although socio-cultural differences play an important role in the outcomes, stark contrasts in their approach to education contributed to the divergence in enrollment, parity, and transition rates between the two countries.

In the middle of the 20th century the education systems of both China and India were selective with low enrollment rates and high numbers of out of school children (24 million in China in 1949 and 19 million in India in 1951). Illustrated in the figure below, from 1950 to 1965, the centralized financing in China focused on primary school construction with the number of primary schools per 1000 students nearly doubling over the fifteen year period while the number of schools per 1000 students remained the same in India between 1955 and 1965.

(Smith & Joshi, 2016)

Although Article 45 of India’s 1950 constitution required the country to commence, within ten years, with “free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen”, the decentralization of financial responsibility away from the national government and to the state led to vast disparities in educational priorities. Unlike China’s focus on basic education, investments of the Indian national government from 1950 to 1970 were concentrated in higher education and over the last thirty years private schools in India have been filling the void of government schools at lower levels, with the private school share of primary school enrollment increasing by over 500% between 1979 and 2010. As shown in the figure below approximately 17% of all primary school students in India in 2010 attended a private school with the number attending private schools increasing to greater than 1 in 2 students at the upper secondary level. The decentralized governance system in India has also contributed to parents not being held accountable for ensuring their children attended school while monitoring of private school quality and practices has been weak.

(Smith & Joshi, 2016)

Although private provision of schooling has been on the rise, the private school share of primary and secondary education has remained substantially lower in China than in India, in spite of their increasingly capitalist economy. Additionally, while India’s 2009 Right of Education to Free and Compulsory Education Act may signal increased emphasis on public education, as unregistered private schools are forced to close and private unaided schools are required to allocate 25% of their spaces to economically disadvantaged students, early research indicates that “the government seems to be in no hurry to adhere to the spirit of the right to education” (Jha & Pravati, 2010, p. 22). Without government schools replacing closed unregistered schools it is uncertain how this act will impact access.

Returning to the fifteen year period in which countries are being asked to universalize basic education, it is clear that the early investments in public education in China had a profound impact on ensuring access to all. While the average years of schooling for China increased from 3.2 years in 1964 to 7.7 years in 2000, the average years of schooling in India in the early 2000s remained around 4.4. Early investments in primary education in China ensured that large cohorts of young students were prepared for higher levels of education, which, when coupled with higher transition rates, allowed the country to expand access in secondary and tertiary education without targeting financing to a select minority. The result (as illustrated in the figure below) was a sharp rise in tertiary enrollment rates in China at the turn of the 21st century, quickly surpassing India, regardless of India’s earlier focus on and investments in higher education.

(Smith & Joshi, 2016)

What is clear from this comparison is that while the mixed approach of India may not prevent universal education in the long run, it is ill suited for countries that want to swiftly expand access to all children. This is largely due to the different motivations between public and private education and the realization that universal education “requires not only educating ninety percent of children, but also educating the last ten percent. The last ten percent typically live in areas that are not profitable, hard to reach, and costly to cover” (Smith & Joshi, 2016, p. 157).


Jha, P. & Pravati, P. (2010). Right to Education Act 2009: Critical gaps and challenges. Economic and Political Weekly, 45(13), 20-23.

Smith, W.C. & Joshi, D. (2016). Private vs. public schooling as a route to universal basic education: A comparison of China and India. International Journal of Educational Development, 46, 153-165.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.