Beijing has got its arithmetic right, says Anand Kumar

Even 2,000 miles away from his Ramanujan School of Mathematics in native Bihar, numbers are very much on Anand Kumar's mind.

Not the kind of complex numbers he usually puts up every morning on the rickety blackboard he uses to teach his students, but a simple statistic which he sees as a strong indictment of India's inadequacies in higher education.

“In the last 20 years, 13 students from China have won the International Mathematical Olympiad,” Mr. Kumar says. “And India hasn't won the prize even once.”

Mr. Kumar knows more than most what it takes to nurture academic talent in maths and sciences. He rose to international prominence through his school's ambitious and path-breaking “Super 30” initiative, which has had remarkable success in preparing underprivileged students for the challenging Indian Institute of Technology Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE).

Mr. Kumar says he has long held a fascination for China — in particular, its success in producing young mathematicians and scientists. So he decided to pay a short visit to this country en route to Canada, where he will give lectures this week at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

“In the coming 15 years, I believe that all Nobel Prize winners and Fields Medal winners will come from China,” he told The Hindu in an interview in Beijing, referring to the most prized award in international mathematics. “Their present is very bright,” he says, “so their future is even brighter.”

He cites China's success at the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), a prestigious annual competition for high school students, as an indicator of the country's success in education. China has ranked first 17 times since its students began participating in the Olympiad in 1985, according to the country rankings published on the IMO website. India has never ranked first.

China's recent success is even more stunning: in the last 12 years, China ranked first on 10 occasions, and ranked second twice. India only managed two top-ten results in this time with a highest position of seven, ranking 23rd and 38th in the last two competitions.

Mr. Kumar acknowledges that Olympiad results may not be an accurate assessment of the qualities of an education system, but he certainly sees a lesson in them.

He says he is interested in understanding how China achieved its success and what Indian higher education can learn from China's more centralised system, which invests more attention and resources into training young mathematicians up from the district level.

He also sees larger lessons in China's primary and secondary school education system, and is impressed by its reach, and in particular the provision of free and compulsory nine-year education in every village and town.

In many parts of rural China, the government has set up larger primary and secondary boarding schools that cater to several districts, and provide better quality education than that available in small towns and villages. Mr. Kumar thinks following this model might make sense in India. “It is not realistic to expect to have one good teacher in every village,” he said.

“Schooling is weak in India because of a lack of teachers,” he added. “We need to invest more in training our teachers.”

To produce the world's best mathematicians and scientists, India's focus must be on the grass roots and on schools, than an obsession he sees with colleges and universities.

“Providing a good education up to the secondary level is the most important thing,” he said. “In our country, 70 per cent of children get educated in rural areas, so the reach has to be improved. The sad fact is that the government education system is no longer working.”

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