Casualties of the rush to profit from schooling
Beijing has finally started addressing the reality of an education sector at the crossroads after spending more than a decade in pursuit of a market-driven education industry and amid growing public discontent over soaring tuition fees.
'The level of education [spending] per capita is still low ... public spending on education is not sufficient, and some pressing issues concerning the public have not been resolved,' the State Council said in a statement after giving its seal of approval late last year to the 11th Five-Year Programme (2006 to 2010) Guidelines on Education Development.
It called on governments at all levels to make the development of education a strategic priority and 'to commit to a public education system that can be accessed by all'.
The guidelines followed an array of high-profile, top-level manoeuvres aimed at reshaping the country's mammoth education sector.
President Hu Jintao presided over a study session for the Communist Party's Politburo in August to stress the importance of education. And in an unprecedented show of concern, Premier Wen Jiabao chaired four seminars from July to November to discuss some pressing issues facing the education system.
Beijing Institute of Technology professor Yang Dongping , a prominent education analyst on the mainland, said there had been a noticeable policy shift during the past two years favouring a more welfare-based education system.
'Working towards equality in access to basic education is now becoming an important tenet [for the government],' Professor Yang said.
For decades after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, mainlanders enjoyed largely free education through to university. But to fund more places, in the mid-1980s mainland universities were allowed to start charging students a small fee.
Since then, tuition fees have shot up 20-fold to between 4,000 and 6,000 yuan a year. Now a four-year bachelor's degree can carry a price tag of up to 60,000 yuan, the same amount a farmer in some underdeveloped areas would take 30 years to earn.
Yin Jianli , a researcher with Beijing-based NGO Western Sunshine Action, said a college student from a poor rural region used to carry the hopes of an entire family, but now the initial elation of a university offer quickly turns into desolation for many rural families because supporting a college student can plunge them into dire straits.
In Shanxi , the father of Chen Yi, one of the top students in his class last year, killed himself out of shame in June after he learned his son had passed the national college entrance exams. The father knew he could not come up with the money to send his son to college.
The pinch of pricey schooling on the mainland goes beyond the urban-rural divide. The 2007 Blue Book compiled by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that spending on education ranked sixth on a list of serious public concerns in the past year, with school bills gobbling up more than 10 per cent of the average household budget on the mainland.
As mainland families buckle under mounting school bills, the government has failed to live up to its 2000 promise to lift education spending to 4 per cent of gross domestic product. Despite runaway economic growth, the government only spent 2.82 per cent of GDP on education in 2005, far below the 4 per cent level attained by many developing countries in the '90s.
While maintaining its commitment to more spending on education, the State Council said in the new five-year plan that most new spending in the next few years would be directed to the underdeveloped central and western regions, to narrow the gap between the countryside and the cities.
Many pupils from underprivileged families in these regions have already begun receiving a small allowance to attend school. They have also had their tuition fees and textbook expenses waived, and university students from rural areas are offered cheap bank loans to fund their studies.
In addition, the Ministry of Education is developing a mechanism to calculate college costs and cap university tuition fees.
Ms Yin said the new measures would ease the burden on poor families, but not necessarily help bridge the great rural-urban gap 'as the current way of teaching in the countryside does not try to nurture in students a sense of appreciation for their upbringing and the land they have been living off. As a result, it helps drain as much talent as possible from the countryside'.
Ms Yin said volunteers from her organisation had instead helped farmers make more money by selling produce through the internet. She said other locals could do just as well once they had proper training.
'But under the current system, the students, their families and teachers are forced to single-mindedly pursue a university place and leave their home behind,' she said.
This irrational obsession with securing a university place has driven exponential growth in college numbers in recent decades and the unchecked expansion has called into question the standard of higher education on the mainland.
During a bedside hospital visit from Mr Wen in July, renowned mainland rocket scientist Qian Xuesen blamed universities for hampering the country's economic progress, saying that 'not a single university has come up with an innovative mechanism to nurture inventions in science and technology'.
'They lack a unique way of teaching. [No wonder] they cannot produce world-class talent,' Mr Qian said.
The premier later brought up the issue at a meeting with several university principals and expressed concern about the drop in the quality of teaching at mainland universities.
For years, mainland universities and schools have operated like for-profit businesses and the situation has fostered a raft of irregularities ranging from embezzlement, to falsification of research and plagiarism.