According to an article in the China-based Social Science Forum (issue #5, 2003), exorbitant fees charged by schools have compelled a number of students to take their own lives.
Zhang Yulin, deputy professor at the Nanjing Agriculture University, reported in September 2003, on <http://www.china-village.org>, that as of April 2000, teachers in China were owed at least 13.56 billion yuan (about A$2.36 billion) of wages in arrears. According to Zhang, this shortfall is equivalent to some 2 million of China’s 6.9 million teachers not being paid at all for a full year. Twenty-seven provinces and autonomous regions are affected by the problem. Desperate teachers are deserting their posts in droves and many of the vacancies, if filled at all, have been taken up by underqualified teachers.
A survey conducted in 14 counties across six provinces by the Northeast Teachers Training University revealed that the student dropout rate in 17 rural junior high schools exceeded 40%. This is more than 13 times the 3% ceiling set by Beijing.
Those dropping out continuously swell the ranks of illiterates and semi-illiterates. In 1999, 8.96% — or roughly 80 million people — in rural China were illiterate. According to Guo Shutian, head of the Agriculture Department’s policy and legislation division in a July 10, 2003 article on <http://www.china-village.org>, a survey by his department among 20,000 rural households from various regions revealed that 52.2% of the workforce is illiterate or semi-illiterate or only has primary education.
In a finding not unique to Zhejiang province, the Yangtze Evening Post reported in August last year that a July survey in Nanjing found that primary and high school education were among the 10 most profitable industries in Zhejiang. The article further revealed that in a separate survey of 2851 primary schools and 1547 junior high schools, students have been charged illegal fees totalling 16 million yuan.
Education for all?
Such outrageous stories about China’s education system are relatively new. As in other underdeveloped countries, education in China had, until the 1949 revolution, been a luxury of the privileged few. But soon after 1949, by way of nationalisation, elitist private schools were replaced by many more public schools that were geared to educate workers and peasants and the younger generations. “Irregular schools”, “winter or part-time classes for tillers” and other flexible arrangements were employed to bring virtually free education, however rudimentary in comparison to modern schooling, to working people.
The enrolment rate of school-age children rose from 20% in 1949 to 84.7% in 1965. This gain helped frustrate the rise in illiteracy. The challenge of educating a populous (roughly 1 billion people then and nearly 1.3 billion now), poor country remained enormous and any short-term achievements were vulnerable. But there was a collective will to recognise education as a right and real steps were taken in that direction.
During the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, however, the goal of universal education was amended to exclude the “class enemy” and the curriculum was seriously distorted. Tertiary education virtually stopped.
The public examination system for university admission was restored in 1977, but rebuilding the devastated education system was an arduous task. De-collectivisation in rural areas soon began, gathering pace in the early 1980s, followed by creeping privatisation in the cities. Both processes undermined the material basis whereby critical resources were collectively provided to make possible the move towards universal education. Education on all levels became increasingly user-pays, a crushing burden for many and pie in the sky for even more.
Meanwhile, fiscal income distribution started to be decentralised from the early 1980s, with the proclaimed goal of devolving “local matters” to the lower levels of governments. Education was considered one such “local matter”. But the critical collective resources needed for education often found their way into the pockets of corrupt local bureaucrats. As Deng Xiaoping’s “open-door reform” policies gathered pace from 1978, the previously promoted socialist values increasingly became just rhetoric.
In a 1985 decision to restructure the educational system, Beijing handed down a new “division of labour” — the funding and management of senior high schools would become primarily the responsibility of county governments, junior high schools that of township governments, and primary schools that of village governments. A September 1986 State Education Commission circular added that the construction and maintenance of rural primary school buildings would essentially be the tasks of the townships and villages, even though the higher level local governments should help out those in difficulty. In reality, such assistance rarely arrived.
In the wake of decades of war and occupation, from the 1950s China used rural resources to help fund urban development, thereby furthering the urban-rural divide. Now, under-resourced rural localities are asked to take care of their own needs. This is a sure recipe to send the poor hinterlands in a downward spiral.
Apparently to ensure the local bureaucrats delivered at least a minimum level of education, Beijing decreed in 1986 the Compulsory Education Law, which required local governments to provide nine years of free education to all school-age children. Local authorities equated free education with “not levying school fees” but they imposed hefty charges under a myriad of pretexts. Subsidiary fees, book fees, tutoring fees, heating fees, exam fees and tea fees are some examples.
The `tofu’ law
The burden far exceeded what many families, especially rural ones, could afford. Unfulfilled aspirations of frustrated poor students or their parents’ herculean but fruitless efforts to meet those payments set the scene for a number of tragic stories that have been turned into hot-selling books in China in recent years. Mocking the lack of enforcement mechanism, the Compulsory Education Law is dubbed the “Tofu education law”.
Unsurprisingly, dropout rates rose sharply and popular discontent permeated China in 1988-89. Student protests recurred in various regions from 1986, culminating in the mass upsurge in May-June 1989 in Beijing.
The bloody 1989 crackdown repressed public criticism, for a while. But public discontent over dwindling access to education re-emerged in 1993, expressed in debates in the National People’s Congress, China’s quasi-parliament. On Teachers’ Day in 1993, State Education Commission head Zhu Kaixuan admitted that the scale, size and delay of unpaid teachers’ wages were “unprecedented ... since the founding of New China”.
As a stop-gap remedy, the Teachers’ Law was decreed in 1994 and the Education Law in 1995 to address some of the problems. A November 1993 State Council (China’s cabinet) circular warned that localities that continued to default on teachers’ pay on a big scale would be banned from acquiring new vehicles or engaging in new construction of buildings!
By that time, most schools responsible for compulsory education were funded and managed by the township and village authorities. But the budgets at such levels were often too small and vulnerable to provide a stable basic education. Local bureaucrats often made the problem worse through misappropriation. In 1993, Beijing said that localities having difficulties in funding education could revert temporarily to using county funding.
However, the problems remained and in May 2001 the State Council decreed that all funding to enforce compulsory education in the rural areas should be managed at the county level. Detailed rules to enforce this arrangement only came in May 2002. There are no signs that the problem has gone away.
In 1994, the central government started to partially reverse the 1980s decentralisation of fiscal revenues. The ratio of central government to local government revenue entitlements changed from 40:60 in the early 1980s to 22:78 in the early 1990s, then to 52:48 in 1998, according to Tan Songhua of the National Centre for Education Development Research in a 2003 article in Beijing University Education Review.
Little of Beijing’s increased revenue has been channelled to compulsory education. The central government’s bias towards funding mainly higher education and “selective schools”, concentrated predominantly in the cities, continues.
According to the State Statistical Bureau, the central government obtained 51% of the revenue in 2000, while only 20% went to the county and village authorities (10% and 17% to the provincial and city governments respectively). Yet according to the State Council’s Development Research Centre, in recent years the townships and villages have been shouldering 78% of the cost of the compulsory education while the counties accounted for 9%, the provinces 11% and Beijing less than 2%.
Surveys have revealed that as much as 70% of the modest township and village revenue has gone to compulsory education. The significant shortfall thus created has been invariably plugged by struggling rural households.
Many city parents are also bending over backward to support their children’s education. But education opportunities in Chinese cities are significantly better than the countryside. Completion of senior high school is the norm in the cities where schools are far better equipped. Many rural kids, on the other hand, are struggling to enrol and stay in primary schools. Such rural “schools” are often poorly lit and furnished, dilapidated structures sitting on dirt.
In the 1950s and '60s, there was a primary school within a reasonable distance of every village. The much-reduced availability of schools now means that more students have to take up boarding, sometimes with faraway relatives, in order to stay in schools and that has increased their costs.
With the much proclaimed high economic growth of the last decade, there should be resources to at least narrow the urban-rural divide. But Beijing’s pro-capitalist “reforms” have prevented that from happening. In fact, the gulf is widening.
From Green Left Weekly, October 6, 2004.
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