Poverty must not be a barrier to learning

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 September, 2003, 12:00am

On the mainland, the gap between the rich and poor is growing by the day. The education system, which should be playing a role in smoothing out such inequalities, is exacerbating them. A case in point is the level of subsidy provided to secondary schools: the government provides 813 yuan a year for each student in the cities, but only 486 yuan in rural areas.

As we have reported over the past few days, educators believe that general underfunding is having negative side effects for teachers and students in all areas. But the burden is heaviest in the poorer areas, where less funding translates into lower-quality teaching and means students leave school earlier - perpetuating a cycle of poverty in which there should instead be opportunities for those who need them most.

Today's instalment in our series, marking National Teachers' Day, highlights the common practice of charging illegal entrance fees, especially to the most sought-after schools. Teachers and administrators are caught in a bind because official subsidies are only enough to meet about half the costs of running their programmes; these fees help make up the difference and supplement often meagre salaries.

Children are the losers under these circumstances, especially poorer children whose parents cannot afford to buy them places in schools. The country in turn loses out if it cannot benefit from the talents of those who may otherwise qualify but whose families lack the resources to educate them.

Nearly 10 years after the State Council set a goal of spending 4 per cent of gross domestic product on education, the target has not yet been met - spending for 2002 was 3.3 per cent. Although China has many other pressing needs that will also require heavy funding, including improving public health care and fixing a fragile banking system, it is clear that education will also need to be a top priority.

As the country pursues continued economic development, a skilled workforce that is prepared to take advantage of new opportunities will be crucial. Adequately funded schools and adequately compensated educators would be the foundation of a system that fosters such students. The emphasis of reforms should be on drawing good teachers to the poorer areas, raising the quality of education in the most disadvantaged regions, and ensuring education is available to all, regardless of wealth.

Stamping out the practice of charging illegal fees will clearly be a challenge. Hundreds of poor counties have recently made these fees illegal, yet no school system will have any incentive to abolish them unless there are guarantees the shortfall will be made up by government. For this to happen, more money will need allocating to education, across the board.