The fact is that it is a battle with sheer numbers from the poor countries.
Will Durant (the great American historian and philosopher of the twentieth century) posed the question that if Darwin was correct on the survival (and multiplication) of the fittest, then today the human world is in a state of contradictions. The third world is increasing its population at an alarming rate, while the rich world’s population is shrinking. This had never been true earlier for the human race. Remember, through the second half of the last millennium, Europe’s achievements in science & engineering and military growth leading to colony-building, coincided with a rapidly rising population. This would not have been a coincidence. For, Europe would not have won its colonies without the support of its bulging population. For instance, every British joining the East India Company posting in India was usually one of 5 or 7 or more siblings, packed off by the family to an internship and bread-winning journey, because it could barely afford to feed another mouth, leave aside education. So what sense do you make of the present world, where the rich countries are technologically, militarily and economically far more powerful, but have got fast outnumbered by the poor?
Coming back to education, does the problem come from the fact that with a cozy life, one wants to enjoy the comforts, not struggle on? When people are used to affluent, easy life, superior education system alone cannot guarantee competitive advantage. Is that the problem with the rich world?
How hard to study and what to study is not a matter of choice to kids in poor countries like India, China and elsewhere. It is a matter of making a living. What is drilled into young heads is that they must try hard, for only if they can edge competition out, can they survive. This approach or practice (coupled with average/poor education infrastructure) may not guarantee the best crop. But certainly produces an army of average crop. An army which is ready to fill in any opportunity anywhere in the world. Quality of education is (much) poorer in developing countries and success can be explained only by desperately hard efforts expended by individuals to make the best of available education opportunities, for, the price of non-success is too high – abject poverty combined with social condemnation. Not that it results in high success rates. Success rates are rising, but are still low. In a big population, even a small proportion of desperately hard-working individuals attaining success, translates into formidable numbers. The game is of sheer numbers.
The choices are quite stark in poor countries like India. If you have a good academic background, i.e. you’ve studied hard, absorbed skills, and entered the job market, you get a direct entry to upper middle class income and lifestyle. Should you prefer to miss the education part, the result could be ending up working hard, often physically, barely making two ends meet and there will be no housing or education opportunities for children. In short, you’ve been condemned to hell. In rich countries, average efforts in education can still get you a decent life and therefore, competing like mad from school onwards isn’t necessary. This makes life better, and probably somewhat easy. Between studying hard or not, competing hard or not, the consequences do not seem as stark. So how do you get working class parents to make heavy compromises in life, so that kids can go to college? In most Asian countries, for example (and including the OECD member South Korea), parents live frugally, so that the children can go to good school and attend a university. Children burn away the best years of their lives under the study lamp, so that they can get their passport to middle/upper middle class income. Parents and children alike, are hungry to achieve this.
The fact remains that in the rich world, the education opportunities as well as the quality of education is much superior.