Poor education among ethnic minorities could hinder Beijing's efforts to develop the country's west, mainland educators and officials have warned. Researchers and educators at a seminar on education for ethnic minorities in China earlier this month called for immediate measures to improve the situation. Figures provided by the State Ethnic Affairs Commission showed that until last year, about 85 per cent of the adult population had completed the nine-year compulsory education consisting of primary and junior secondary levels. The remaining 15 per cent were mostly of minority origin, who formed 80 per cent of the population in the vast but poorly developed western China. 'They are scattered in the region, with different traditions, ways of life, dialects and perhaps, writing. All these factors have contributed to the uneven development of education compared with the Han people,' said Xia Zhu, director-general of Minority Nationalities Education, a Ministry of Education department. The nomadic lifestyle of some, for example, made setting up a school and registering students and teachers difficult. Though boarding schools were available, poverty meant some were unable to leave home, where they shared food and clothing with other family members. In other cases, families were unwilling to release important labourers, said Mr Xia. The result was a limited production capacity among the labour force and lack of ability to catch up with the rest of the world, said Director of Education Department at the State Ethnic Affairs Commission Wu Shimin. 'The short-term solution is for us to 'borrow' talents from elsewhere in China, but in the long run development depends very much on local people.' The short supply of good teachers in the region was another key problem, said Scarlet Chan Kwan-shun, organiser of the seminar and president of The Great Wall Education Foundation, a Hong Kong-based charity assisting education for minorities in China. There were few good local teachers because of the low level of education, while most trained teachers did not want to work in impoverished areas, Ms Chan said. Amid rapid expansion of higher education promoted by central Government, and its plan to set up the first key institution in the area, the director of the Research Institute of Anthropology and Sociology at Beijing University, Qian Minhui, warned that poor educational foundations would only lead to lower academic standards. The central Government plans to spend four billion yuan (HK$4.2 billion) in the west over the next five years. Another five billion will be spent on teacher training in the region. 'That is why the task of improving education must be taken up together by the Government and the society,' said Mr Xia. 'This is an urgent task,' Mr Wu said. 'It takes nine years for a person to complete compulsory level, over 20 years to train a doctorate degree holder. Even if we start now it will take at least 10 years to see the result.' Meanwhile, a 2.5-month programme to promote the use of information technology in education in western China was started in Xian earlier this month by the Ministry of Education.