Authorities have announced a drive to bring literacy to most ethnic minority adults and compulsory education to minority children in the next eight years. The mainland's minorities mostly live in the remote and poorer inland provinces of the west. Speaking at a national conference in Beijing on educating ethnic minorities, Education Minister Chen Zhili admitted their schooling fell short of the needs for economic and social development in the regions. In the first phase, Ms Chen said, the ministry aimed to introduce a nine-year compulsory education programme in about 70 per cent of counties populated by minorities by 2005, up from 51 per cent last year. By 2005, at least 95 per cent of those regions would provide compulsory primary school education, Xinhua reported. Ms Chen called for better training of teachers speaking minority languages and Putonghua to help implement the programme. She said distance learning should be encouraged, with remote teaching centres set up in counties and townships using satellite technology. The minister said the more affluent cities in the east should be encouraged to sponsor schools in the west and universities should sponsor training of ethnic minority students. By the end of last year, only 338 of the total 699 counties populated by the minorities were able to provide the nine-year compulsory schooling, according to official statistics. The Ministry of Education said the illiteracy rate among young and middle-aged members of minorities was about 15 per cent by the end of last year, compared with the national average illiteracy rate of about five per cent. The central government has named the lack of funding for schooling and teacher training as the two main reasons leading to minority children being deprived of the chance to learn in their native tongue. Xinhua said the central government had set up several projects to fund compulsory education in poverty-stricken areas, and a separate foundation for the renovation and reconstruction of damaged school buildings. It also planned to direct donations from overseas countries and regions, including Hong Kong, to fund education in minority regions. The central government has allocated five billion yuan (HK$4.7 billion) for free schooling in the poorer regions and over the past year three billion yuan has been allocated to renovate and reconstruct damaged school buildings.