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Riverston Training Academy in India

‘We turn coal into diamonds’, says Pieush Agrawal, head of Edge Academy, a coaching centre in Kota, Rajasthan. Since it opened six years ago Edge have helped 106 students pass exams for the National Defence Academy and other elite Indian military schools. Edge have defied the odds – only one in 1,126 applicants normally make it to NDA. However students cram seven days a week with CCTV monitoring whether the students and/or the teachers are slacking! Mr Agrawal says, ’… the backdrop of all learning is firm discipline’. Many tutors in Kota expect their students to spend upto 12 hours a day being drilled in history, politics, economics, sociology, mathematics and English.

Each year 125,000 students go to Kota to study – first and foremost in preparation for secure and well-paid government jobs. Demand is so strong that tutors are booking cinema halls for classes and whilst cheating is always a problem only the best of the best have any chance of securing their future career ambitions.

For students with more international ambition, when you’ve learned by rote all your school life, how do you craft the ‘rounded personality’ that UK and America’s top college’s admissions processes demand? Growing up in the large schools so evident especially in places like China and India too often imbibe lessons of conformality, obedience, loyalty and patriotism in their purest form with any independent thought that deviates from the ‘right’ answers students needed to memorise for their next exam absolutely suppressed. Indeed the purpose of such forms of education is seemingly to make everybody the same!

For many children their education still remains as overtly prescriptive as their parents with no time for studying or practising the arts – dance, drama, music, painting, calligraphy, etc. The decades-old system where for example, Chinese students cram for the gaokan – the pressure-packed national examination whose result – in a single number – is the sole criterion for admissions into Chinese universities remains although happily there is growing awareness of other higher education opportunities. However if such students wish to study abroad they have to abandon the routes available to enter the elite domestic universities to have time to prepare for a completely different set of standardised tests and a confounding university application process without any chance of resuming their studies in their domestic universities! If that happened students would miss the chance of going to an elite university and forego a top job within the system – a point of no return!

It is one of educations most interesting contradictions that as eastern governments try to reduce foreign influences in their own universities, the flood of eastern students leaving for the west continues to rise. Over the past decade the number of mainland Chinese students enrolled in American colleges has nearly quintupled from 62,523 in 2005, to 304,040 last year. Most of these students are from the rising elite who can afford tuition fees of $60,000 a year for America’s top universities – as well as the tens of thousands of dollars for the necessary transition preparation. Even the daughter of Xi Jinping, China’s President and the man who is driving the campaign against foreign ideas recently studied, under a pseudonym, at Harvard University. Among Western educators the Chinese and Indian system is famous for producing an elite corps of high school students who regularly finish in the top of global test rankings, far ahead of their American or British counterparts. So many eastern parents are now opting out of their domestic system that selling education to Chinese and Indian students has become a profitable business for the West. In America, Chinese students account for over a third of all foreign students contributing $9.8 billion to the US economy whilst in Britain Chinese student’s also top the international lists too. Furthermore the outflow shows no signs of subsiding with 80% of the country’s wealthiest families planning to send their children abroad for their education.

Competition for entrance into the best schools in the UK and the US is ferocious. For example, of 40,000 Chinese students applying to US universities, only 200 were accepted into Ivy League schools. The application process is oft regarded as baffling and complex. On top of the battery of standardised exams – the SAT, ACT, and TOEFL – many universities require transcripts, teacher recommendations, personal statements and supplemental essays. Trickiest of all, both American and UK colleges want their students who shine through their extra-curricular activities and unique life experiences – indeed anything that will them singular! Applying to British universities is simpler as they base admissions largely on A-level scores - although these exams do require students to master a greater range of materials and intellectual techniques.

For many Eastern students they are products of an educational system that for all its high achievers is built to suppress intellectual curiosity, creativity and individuality – indeed the very qualities that Western educators value most. So the question is how do students construct a unique persona that will appeal to Western colleges and what kind of person do they think admissions officers will find appealing? For many this process can be a painful journey of self-discovery although for others the sudden pressure to define and differentiate themselves can drive them to do almost anything to succeed!

Many students transfer once the decision to apply for international enrolment has been made to their own schools international wing – dozens of international wings have popped up in public schools across China offering western style curricula and looser restrictions for those wealthy students wanting to prepare for university abroad. It’s a profitable business - in one elite Beijing School nearly 400 students each pay an annual tuition of c.$15,000 per year giving the public school a multi-million dollar revenue stream. This school-within-a-school phenomenon hints at many Eastern countries ambivalence towards student’s exodus. With no SAT testing sites in China for example, students join the hordes flooding into Singapore and Hong Kong on test weekends. It is not unusual for a test site to have 10,000 test takers each weekend! In their desire to get a liberal arts education most students also spend their final year whilst at school being educated by a growing number of educational consultants in little more than the art of getting into a Western college. An ‘interview-prep’ class run by Shang Learning in Shanghai that caters to middle-schoolers aiming to enrol in UK and American boarding schools as a stepping stone to gaining a university place sees that competition has become so fierce that wealthy families prepare their children at ever younger ages. Shand Learning which trains 9 – 15 year olds charges about $23,000 to guide students through the year of their applications to boarding schools. Most of the students also choose from a series of a la carte courses in topics such as ‘reading and writing’ or ‘interview prep’ with each two hour session costing nearly $400. One wealthy Mumbai based parent recently flew their son to San Fransisco to try to help their Yr 3 child get placed into a top primary school in Silicon Valley. Every family is seeking an edge – another student’s parents took her to see Harvard when she was in Yr 4, whilst another attended a special summer camp at UCLA; another has just returned from an intensive ten-day, ten-school admissions tour in America with an independent consultant at a cost of $1,250 a day.


Prof. Michael Lewis