The mainland leadership's decision to remove unpopular education minister Dr Zhou Ji over the weekend may seem abrupt, but it was not unexpected. It's actually a welcome development. As the central government maps out educational reforms for the medium and long term, Zhou's removal may signal a new start.
At 63, he was two years short of the retirement age for government ministers. He will now become deputy party chief of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, a substantially less important post.
Zhou, who received a doctorate from the State University of New York at Buffalo, had been education minister since 2003. When the National People's Congress met last year to elect a new cabinet for a five-year term, he won only 84 per cent of the votes - the lowest among all ministers and an unusually low rate from the rubber-stamp legislature.
His departure had been expected since last year, when State Councillor Chen Zhili, the top official in charge of education and Zhou's immediate boss, was sidelined and made a deputy chairman of the NPC, largely an honorary title. Chen, a close ally of former president Jiang Zemin, was replaced by Liu Yandong, closely linked to President Hu Jintao .
But politics may just have expedited Zhou's removal. More important, the leadership may use his replacement to signal its renewed determination to step up education reforms at a time of widespread public dissatisfaction with the education system, particularly rampant financial and moral corruption at universities.
The mainland's education system is seriously lacking in many ways. If not fixed properly, it could stall the country's modernisation drive. But to be fair, many of its education woes date to long before Zhou became education minister. What's more, some of the problems were beyond Zhou's capability to fix.
For instance, the central government proudly announced in 2000 that it would increase annual spending on education to 4 per cent of gross domestic product, an internationally accepted norm, but nine years later it is still below 4 per cent, even though the mainland's GDP rose from 8.94 trillion yuan in 2000 to 30.06 trillion yuan last year.
As Zhong Nanshan, the leading doctor best known for his efforts to fight severe acute respiratory syndrome, told People's Daily last month, mainland officials are fond of saying that 'for projects of enduring importance, education is the foundation'. But the truth was that they merely paid lip service, Zhong said, adding that salaries for rural teachers were very low and sometimes not paid on time.
Starting this year, the mainland leadership announced that teachers' average salaries should not be below the average salaries of civil servants in the same areas and earmarked 37 billion yuan (HK$42 billion) for long-overdue pay rises.
The leadership can and should do much more. For a start, it should continue to raise teachers' salaries, particularly in rural areas, so that they can be the highest-paid civil servants. Only in this way can it attract talented people to become teachers so that they can groom and train more talent.
With enough money, Zhou's successor can be better equipped to undertake much-needed reforms.
Zhou's successor, Yuan Guiren, is largely unknown outside education circles. He became a deputy education minister in 2001 after studying and working his way up to become the party secretary and president of Beijing Normal University.
It is interesting to note that Yuan started his first job at the age of 19 as a rural teacher in Anhui . Let's hope his experience will prompt him to fight for more funding for rural schools.
Yuan will have an uphill battle because the mainland's education system is fraught with problems, from the chronically underfunded primary and middle schools to low-quality higher education.
But one of his top priorities must be fighting financial and academic corruption in universities.
Last month, two senior officials, an executive deputy president and a party deputy secretary at Wuhan University, a leading mainland institution, were arrested for taking several million yuan in bribes in connection with several campus projects.
They are the latest in a string of senior officials from leading universities to have been arrested for taking advantage of the construction boom in new school buildings and dormitories in recent years.
This has highlighted another problem with the education system. Billions of yuan have been poured into higher education with the aim of building world-class universities, but most of the funding has gone into the buildings instead of towards hiring and training top-class lecturers and professors.
To make matters worse, plagiarism is rampant in universities and has seriously damaged the reputation of higher education. According to state media reports, professors and students alike are widely involved in plagiarism, copying and pasting materials they find on the internet for their academic papers.
If such rampant academic corruption is not curbed effectively, the mainland's educational picture will be hopeless, no matter what reforms are undertaken or how much money is spent.