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INFOCUS | CHINA | EDUCATION

Education in present-day China

Policy & Paradox |14| India-China Chronicle  November-December 2010

China may have largely eliminated illiteracy and encouraged primary education but investment in higher education lags. China’s high levels of economic growth since reform have been achieved in spite of the existence of relatively few college-trained managers and professions. Imagine if it did? An exhaustive look at China’s education system and what ails it. India-China Chronicle |15|


INFOCUS | CHINA | EDUCATION

Sreemati Chakrabarti

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ducation and knowledge have been greatly valued in China since time immemorial. In its 5000 year old history China has had a tradition of respecting and honouring teachers and scholars. Education in ancient China was of a high quality and therefore Chinese civilization had made great advances and also contributed to world civilization. But for a variety of reasons education remained limited to the wealthy classes and there was no concept of mass education till about the later half of the 19th century. From this period to about 1949, due to the semi-colonial and semi-feudal nature of Chinese society, modern education in China lagged behind the rest of the world. The literacy rate in China was below 20 per cent at the time of Liberation in 1949 but today it stands at more than 90 per cent. A significant leap by any yardstick! Soon after its inception in1921 the Communist Party of China began literacy campaigns for the masses and set up an Education Department for the purpose. The communist leadership’s stress on education and its commitment for its dissemination is clearly evident from the fact that during the revolutionary struggle, whenever there was absence of hostilities, literacy-related work was carried out by party workers particularly among peasants. This is remarkable as the party was struggling for survival up till 1949 when China came under its rule. Formal and informal primary schools were set up all over the country. Education campaigns were led by mass organizations i.e. the party’s peasant, youth and women’s associations and much of the work was done by volunteers. Here it must be mentioned that China, unlike India, did not have

a neutral apolitical bureaucracy to implement the state’s policies. This task was the responsibility of the cadres of the party who were also the officials. In about 10 years there was massive improvement in literacy rates in rural as well as urban China and along with this, as a result of the spread of literacy, basic healthcare also showed great strides. The Chinese succeeded in spreading literacy through various innovative measures particularly in the countryside. This included setting up of night schools, spare time schools, off-season schools, mobile schools, teacher-athome schools and so forth. Expenses for these schools, which were anyway meagre as volunteer-teachers took no salaries, were borne by the local community. Women and peasants who comprised the overwhelming number of illiterates were the primary beneficiaries of these measures. In higher education though achievements were not as striking yet some noteworthy developments did take place in the 1950s when Soviet influence on China was deep. Remote areas of China which did not have institutions of higher education saw the setting up of universities and engineering institutes. Since the Soviet-supported First Five Year-Plan with heavy emphasis on industrialization, required a large pool of engineers and technicians, many technical institutions were established all over the country. Also comprehensive universities were done away with and in their place specialized institutions of higher education were created. By the mid-fifties only 14 comprehensive universities survived. The period of 1958 to 1978 was a period of political and economic radicalism which had an adverse effect on higher education. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) intellectuals

While most people can read and write yet the average Chinese does not possess high levels of education or skills which the country requires to sustain its growth and development. |16| India-China Chronicle  November-December 2010

and universities became the political targets of the Maoists. This was so because Maoist ideology saw them as promoting elitism. The intelligentsia in China was subjected to unprecedented persecution during this 10-year period. This had a very adverse effect on the state of China’s education because for these 10 years most schools, colleges and universities particularly in urban China remained practically shut. In the post-Mao period, however, as an effort to win back the confidence of the educated class many far-reaching measures have been taken to boost higher education. Private institutions of higher education have mushroomed all over the country. Even state-run institutions are receiving massive funding to develop their infrastructure and to hire very qualified faculty. For main-

taining its speedy growth and development China needs a vast pool of not just scientists, engineers, doctors and teachers but also managers, executives, accountants, lawyers, etc. Today university campuses in China are vibrant. Libraries and laboratories are being modernized, a variety of disciplines introduced, international exchanges increased and overall research developed remarkably. Basic or primary education in China today constitutes of pre-school education, nine year compulsory education, three years of senior secondary education, four-years of undergraduate education. Master’s courses are mostly for two years particularly for professional courses but are sometimes integrated with the doctoral programme mainly in the sciences and social sci-

ences. (Structurally the Chinese system of education resembles that of the United States whereas the Indian system follows the British pattern). In addition to these there are schools for special education of the disabled and adult illiterates. The China Radio and Television University imparts distance education to millions of students who cannot enter universities. Similarly there are vocational schools which provide specialized technical education for two years to students who cannot enter secondary schools. Except for nine years of compulsory education students have to pass an entrance test to enter high school and again for entering college/ university. To ensure education for all up to the junior middle school level the Compulsory Education Law was passed in 1985,

when a series of educational reforms were undertaken. Despite the fact that there was no law for basic education, in the pre-reform Maoist period there was vast advancement in basic literacy. Why was then a law needed later? Although without directly acknowledging the causes for this, the government admitted that there were high drop-out rates in primary schools, particularly in the fourth, fifth and sixth years. (Enrolment rates, however, in the first year of primary school is more than 95 per cent.) The drop-out rates alarmed the government which then passed the Law for Compulsory Education for up to nine years in 1986. Findings of independent researchers have revealed that there were two important reasons why drop-out rates increased from the early 1980s. First, in the post-Mao period agriculture was de-collectivized. Families were granted lease for individual plots of land to farm on and after paying taxes to the state were allowed to sell the surplus in the open market. More produce meant more income but also more hands to work in the family farms. Parents began to withdraw their children from school so that their labour could be used to increase family income. Such a thing was simply not possible during the ‘Commune system’ of the Maoist era where only adults worked in the collectivized farms. Second, with increased opening up of the economy to both domestic and foreign business a large number of small and big entrepreneurs emerged all over China. In rural areas many township and village industries were set up by these entrepreneurs. On the one hand, these provided employments to large numbers of villagers for whom farming was no longer providing livelihood, on the other, many children below the age of fourteen were hired in these nonstate, privately-owned ventures. During the Mao period child labour had almost completely disappeared although it was rampant in the pre-1949 period. Now the situation in China greatly resembles that of India where though there are laws against child labour yet they cannot be enforced. Poor families prefer to send their children to work

November-December 2010  India-China Chronicle |17|


INFOCUS | CHINA | EDUCATION

rather than to school. The only difference with India is that so far one does not see child labour in the cities. There are, however, other reasons too for the high drop-out rate in rural China’s primary schools. During my field research on “China’s Compulsory Education Law,” with the help of some unpublished research reports of UNICEF (Beijing), I found some interesting but not totally unexpected facts. In poor rural families parents consider nine years of education as wasteful because good jobs are available to the urban, university educated. Parents who are not so poor also prefer to withdraw their children half way through primary education as the system of entrance test is no guarantee that even a fairly good student would be able to pass it. Not all those who complete nine-years of compulsory education can enter high school. Less than half of them pass the test to study in secondary schools. Also there are not enough schools and qualified teachers for secondary education. The entrance test is only an eliminating process. Similarly all those who complete high school do not enter state supported universities without passing a national entrance examination. According to unofficial statistics only about 20 per cent of examinees qualify to enter any stream – medicine, engineering, law, science or arts. Moreover, now, unlike the Maoist era, higher education is expensive. Of course there are scholarships and bank loans for competent students. After graduation from universities, again unlike the Mao period, there are no employment guarantees. But those with degrees in the so-called market-friendly subjects – Business Management, Economics, Computers, Law. Accountancy, Foreign Language, etc. find it easy to get jobs. Those who study Chinese Literature, History, Philosophy, Marxism-Leninism i.e. market unfriendly subjects, are not so fortunate. Although nine-years of basic education in rural China does not require tuition fees yet all kinds of miscellaneous fees for books, building, extra-curricular activities and so forth are charged by individual schools and this dissuades parents from continuing |18| India-China Chronicle  November-December 2010

with children’s education. The poorer the village, the higher the expenses! Although China is not a federal state yet education remains in the purview of the provinces which give authority to the counties and villages to implement the goals of primary education. There is, therefore, no uniformity in administration and implementation of laws. Other reasons why villagers in China withdraw their children from schools includes poor quality of teachers. Salaries are so low that qualified people stay away from this profession. Many who become teachers quit their jobs for lucrative offers. Former teachers who have become taxi drivers or barmaids earn four to five times as much as they would have earned as teachers. The Chinese government has set up many teacher training institutions of higher learning called ‘Normal Universities’ so that the quality of school education improves but most of the graduates prefer to stay in the cities and work. To improve the content of education in recent years the central government in China has invested resources in many nation-wide teacher training and curriculum improvement programmes. Their results are yet to be seen. The primary aim of passing the compulsory Education Law was to achieve nearly hundred per cent literacy. In China’s countryside and in its minority regions like Tibet and Xinjiang this remains an unachieved goal. Although there have been a few isolat-

ed cases where parents have been sent to jail for keeping their children away from school but officials have told me that this was not a sensible solution to the problem particularly in poor areas. The law is more of an enabling provision to ensure improvement in rural literacy rates. Full implementation is not possible given the socio-economic conditions in the rural areas of the poor provinces of China. In the cities, however, the situation is drastically different. There is near hundred per cent literacy. The average education level of a Chinese is about five years. While most people can read and write yet the average Chinese does not possess high levels of education or skills which the country requires to sustain its growth and development. In rural areas large numbers of peasants are moving away from farming into construction, food processing, transportation and other enterprises and desperately need knowledge and skills to develop their business and survive amid severe competition. Here it must be mentioned that not all school-drop outs remain low-paid wage earners all their lives. Many choose to engage in business and there are many examples of such people who have succeeded greatly in business – many are heroes or role models in their villages. Unlike the past when entrepreneurs were viewed with contempt today they elicit awe and admiration. For an all-round success in its economic development strategy and to

meet the challenges of globalization the Chinese require not just a literate population in the industrial work force but also a pool of highly qualified professionals. For this, institutions of higher education required massive support and some amount of autonomy. Since 1985 the government relaxed control over universities over such things as personnel, funding, student enrollment, job assignment and foreign academic exchange. Flexibility provided many opportunities for university development. It was officially stated that universities in China should have three functions: teaching, research and economic activity. Before

with increased opening up of the economy to both domestic and foreign business a large number of small and big entrepreneurs emerged all over China. In rural areas many township and village industries were set up by these entrepreneurs. On the one hand, these provided employments to large numbers of villagers for whom farming was no longer providing livelihood, on the other, many children below the age of fourteen were hired in these non-state, privately-owned ventures. the situation in China greatly resembles that of India where though there are laws against child labour yet they cannot be enforced. Poor families prefer to send their children to work rather than to school. November-December 2010  India-China Chronicle |19|


INFOCUS | CHINA | EDUCATION

Since the Soviet-supported First Five Year-Plan with heavy emphasis on industrialization, required a large pool of engineers and technicians, many technical institutions were established all over the country. Also comprehensive universities were done away with and in their place specialized institutions of higher education were created. By the mid-fifties only 14 comprehensive universities survived. the post-Mao reforms all universities were run either by the national or provincial governments. In 1985 key cities were given the authority to establish universities and other tertiary institutions. Private institutions of higher learning were also allowed as the existing state-owned universities were in no position to absorb the large numbers of aspirants to higher education. High tuition fees are no deterrent to the number of aspirants for university education. This is so because in urban China where nearly 35 per cent of the people live there are innumerable people who have the income to put their children through college. Funds for higher education come from the following sources: government allocation, tuition fees, and private entrepreneurs from within China and also from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and aid from international financial institutions. There is, however, another source called ‘University Reserve Funds’. These are funds raised by the universities by (a) running factories, shops, bars, restaurants, internet cafes, hotels, kindergarten schools, crèches and so on (b) selling research to industrial establishments (c) contracts and commissions for research and training (d) faculty working in outside agencies as consultants, project directors, translators/interpreters. While this has improved the financial status of many academics it has visible negative sideeffects. Profit-syndrome has hit the campuses of China. In many instances teaching and research have been sidelined in favour of money-making ventures. Disparities have emerged between universities, between departments within universities and also between faculty members within one department. Senior university admin-

istrators handling large sums of money have been accused of embezzlement and fraud. This is strikingly similar to the situation in India. Undoubtedly, higher education is making great strides in China today. In 1949, there were only 205 higher education institutions, now the number has exceeded 2000. A major boost to higher education came in 1995 when the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China initiated a new endeavour called ‘Project 211’. The objective was to strengthen about 100 institutions of higher education and key disciplinary areas as a national priority for the 21st century. The most crucial aspect of this project has been massive funding to these universities to hire the best possible faculty and develop world-class university infra-

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structure – libraries, laboratories, stateof-the art class rooms, sports facilities. Access to international scholarship through faculty and student exchange, joint collaborations for research with foreign universities, joint conferences and seminars, etc. are all part of Project 211. Again in 1998, another initiative called Project 985 was implemented in about 40 universities. Under this funding was to be used primarily for faculty members to attend conferences abroad and to invite foreign scholars to lecture in China. To make sure that liberal arts and humanities are not neglected, it is stipulated that 15 per cent of this funding has to be utilized for such disciplines. In spite of all this there is still a huge gap between the requirements of a speedily growing economy and the supply of literate labourers for the industries, on the one hand, and qualified personnel for the service sector, on the other. For China there is no scope of prioritizing between basic education and tertiary education as both require advancing simultaneously. Looking at the social impact of these policies, reforms in Chinese education have not only exacerbated the existing inequalities but also created new ones. Reforms which preceded globalization created disparities and unevenness in all levels of education but globalization has further aggravated the situation. 

Sreemati Chakrabarti is Professor of Chinese Studies at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi and Honorary Director, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.


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