Chaotic debates among political advisers and legislators over the state of mainland education underscored heightened public discontent over a system that has been dogged by a shortage of funds, reckless university expansion, an alarming decline in overall quality and inequity in access to quality education.
A gathering yesterday afternoon of a group of members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the nation's top government advisory body, was meant to be a discussion about Premier Wen Jiabao's work report. But the session quickly turned into an attack on the state of the education system.
If statistics are anything to go by, education edged out medical care and job creation to top the list of concerns with 657 proposals, according to CPPCC chairman Jia Qinglin.
Ge Jianxiong, an outspoken CPPCC member, took Education Minister Zhou Ji to task over the country's prolonged failure to honour its commitment to funding education to the equivalent of 4 per cent of the country's gross domestic product. 'Education expenditure has never reached the level of 4 per cent of GDP. If we can't deliver, why bother to set such a target?' Professor Ge said.
Spending the equivalent of 4 per cent of the country's GDP annually on education is the international benchmark for a sound education system, and developing countries registered an average level of 4.9 per cent at the end of 2005.
The mainland promised to meet the 4 per cent target by 2000, but it reached only 3.3 per cent at the end of 2007, mostly because of local-level governments' lack of commitment.
During an earlier interview, National People's Congress deputy Ji Baocheng, president of prestigious Renmin University, said the 4 per cent threshold was a consensus the Communist Party, the government and the public had all agreed on.
'It should come under the scrutiny of the legislature in accordance with the law, and an accountability mechanism should be put in place if the target cannot be met,' he said.
The shortage of funding followed unprecedented expansion of tertiary education since 1999, in which time annual admissions rose from 1.6 million to about 6 million last year. The period was likened by critics to the Great Leap Forward, a period of reckless social and economic development in the late 1950s.
Professor Ji said the number of universities increased at an average of one every three days for up to eight years, and the number of college teachers shot up from 400,000 in 1999 to 1.2 million now, many of whom had not received proper training.
'Some universities in some regions could not guarantee the level of teaching as their expansions were largely blind,' he said.
The drastic decline in the quality of tertiary education on the mainland has rattled top leaders, including President Hu Jintao and Mr Wen, who pushed for a medium-term plan to revamp the country's colossal education system.
The push by top leaders for quality teaching 'is not a wind from nowhere or releasing a bow without a target', Professor Ji said.
But funding fell short, and universities were forced to borrow heavily from banks. Some of them have virtually gone broke.
Some estimates put total outstanding loans for mainland universities at 450 billion yuan (HK$511 billion), and NPC deputy Zhou Qifeng, former president of debt-ridden Jilin University, blamed the funding shortfall for university debts, which he put at between 200 billion and 300 billion yuan.
Professor Zhou, who is now the president of Peking University, tried to defend the mounting debts, saying the expansion programmes had given the public greater access to tertiary studies.
But such expanded access has come at a price, particularly for students from poor rural families, who have been at a great disadvantage in the push for a market-oriented education system.
Citing a survey on his own campus in Guangzhou, Sun Yat-sen University president Huang Daren said the number of students from rural areas there was dropping and was now less than 30 per cent of the total.
'The ratio of rural students in [tertiary education] is disproportionate to that of the general population. I think they missed out at the starting line,' Professor Huang said.
'If there is any inequality in access to education in China, I think this is the biggest one.'
The 2009 Blue Book of Education, compiled by the 21st Century Education Development Research Institute, found that the percentage of students from families of workers, farmers and migrant workers at prestigious senior high schools had dropped from 37.3 per cent in 1978 to 3.3 per cent last year.
In rural areas, while students have access to free schooling, they have been left behind in quality education as qualified teachers are unlikely to take up posts in remote rural areas and at schools set up in urban areas for students from migrant families.