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Education Or Integrity: How Best To Boost A Nation's Well-Being?

China is asking hard questions about what it takes to make a big nation a great nation.

Schoolgirl in Macau
Schoolgirl in Macau
Betty Ng

BEIJING – Last month, Transparency International published their Corruption Perception Index(CPI). Out of the 177 countries surveyed China ranked 80th. Though these rankings garnered major worldwide coverage, it aroused scant concern and attention in China. Instead another ranking released around the same time, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which evaluates academic performances of 15-year-olds around the world, made major waves in the Chinese public space.

On a basic level, this probably reflects a universal belief that education and labor training are the essential factor in a country’s economic potential and future growth.

Yet, as a matter of fact, the degree of a country’s official probity is an even better indicator of its economic development and the happiness of its citizens. A country with incorruptible officials is most likely to attract investment capital and talent. And, in fact, when a country is corrupt, its investment in education may actually be converted into a free or subsidised cultivation of talent for countries where systems are uncorrupted and the people are happy.

In relation to education, the corruption ranking is more closely correlated with a nation's economic performance and individual well-being. Switzerland, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland make up the world’s happiest countries with the highest living standard based on the United Nation’s World Happiness Report of 2013. Likewise, they are also the world’s most uncorrupted places.

Meanwhile in the PISA indicator, these rich and happy countries lag behind places such as South Korea or certain Chinese localities, like Shanghai, which topped the rankings. Most countries which make it to the top of the PISA ranking are Asian ones where the happiness ranking is far inferior than the Nordic states. Even in Japan and the two former British colonies of Hong Kong and Singapore where the PISA scores are high and they have relatively fewer amoral officials, people remain less happy.

In brief, Asia is not a happy land.

Clearly, the happiness index is related to official integrity and people’s living standards more than it is to academic performance. Meanwhile it was nations such as Britain, the United States and Germany that responded with the greatest concern to their slipping PISA rankings. So who is misplacing or exaggerating their focus?

Corruption brain drain

To a certain extent talent flows freely. As long as the conditions permit, a very corrupt country’s well-educated elite will move to other countries looking for better opportunities. This explains why a lot of the best students who went abroad for further studies chose to take root in their adoptive country. This is to say a corrupt country’s education investment may actually become a free or subsidised cultivation of talent for uncorrupted and happy countries.

According to the Global Professionals on the Move study on international professional mobility conducted by the Hydrogen Group and ESCP Europe, a business school, the top destinations of choice are: the United States, Britain, Australia, Singapore and Canada.

These are all relatively incorruptible countries that also are generally more welcoming to new immigration. Even though America and Britain’s PISA scores are a lot worse than certain Asian nations they nonetheless attract and are able to retain other countries’ elite students to compensate their own qualified labor shortage. This helps them to maintain their competitiveness.

The emigration loss demonstrates that when a country’s entire environment does not attract and retain its talent the country’s education investment can lead to waste. From this point of view eliminating corruption is more crucial than education investment to securing long-term economic growth — it will also raise people’s sense of well-being.

Various local governments’ hype of the PISA scores masks their concern about the CPI. This seems to be misplacing their focus, whether or not it is intentional. This is understandable in countries with relatively trustworthy officials because their underlying economic development conditions have been met.

In the end, it is actually far easier to improve students’ performances than crack down on corruption. Studies show that the more resources and investment are put into education, the better the students' results. The cause and effect are very direct and measurable. When the focus is placed on education it indirectly transfers people’s attention from much thornier issues such as corruption. Unfortunately it is often the public who pay the cost.

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