Education the key to cutting poverty
Lack of education and poverty go hand in hand, especially in rural areas. The more spending a government allocates per student, the better over time will be the living conditions of a population. It is a formula China's leaders are aware of, but have not paid enough attention to as the widening gap between rural and urban parts of the country amply proves. Premier Wen Jiabao was right to highlight the problem on Teachers' Day earlier this month, warning that continued neglect of schools in the countryside had the potential to hinder the nation's development.
Wen's words may sound dramatic, but they ring true given trends. Many village schools have closed down due to urbanisation and students are being forced to travel as much as 40 kilometres to get a basic education. The schools they move to are not being adequately funded to handle the influx. Amid persistent rural poverty and ever-rising costs, increasing numbers of children are quitting education early to get jobs to shore up family incomes. Rural teachers complain of inadequate pay and their schools are not properly equipped with learning material.
The problems are being exacerbated in cities, where workers who have migrated from rural areas are unable to get a decent education for their children due to the hukou system of household registration. With their sons and daughters excluded from state educational institutions and their being unable to afford private education, many have resorted to setting up their own schools, but even then, they have encountered difficulties. Education officials in Beijing shut down 24 such schools just before the start of the term, citing poor building safety and hygiene. Thousands of promised places in the state schooling system have yet to materialise. As worrying is the lack of adequate care for the 20 million children who other migrants left in their rural homes.
Authorities have since 1993 been aiming to allocate 4 per cent of GDP to education, but failed to do so with each five-year plan. In 2006, the figure was just 2.6 per cent. The target has again been set for next year, although anecdotal evidence would seem to indicate that without resolve, it will again go unmet. Wen's call for a boost of funding to rural areas and to ensure that the children of migrants are properly educated makes good sense. They should be allowed, as he said, to sit government exams, no matter where in China they live.
Urban residents on the mainland now earn more than three times as much as people in rural areas. At least 14 million, mostly in remote central and western villages, are still considered to be living in absolute poverty. Only by improving education standards can the gaps be narrowed. Authorities have to make every effort to ensure that Wen's promise of increasing funding is attained.