Time for China to address education spending shortfall

By Xiong Bingqi
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, March 9, 2012
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 [By Jiao Haiyang/China.org.cn]

[By Jiao Haiyang/China.org.cn]

In delivering his work report to the National People's Congress on March 5, Premier Wen Jiabao noted that this year's total government spending on education will account for 4 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) of this year.

China's minister of finance, Xie Xuren, said Tuesday that all levels of government have worked to ensure that the budgeted expenditure for education in 2012 will meet the government's commitment to increase spending on education.

According to an outline of China's national plan for education reform and development, which was drawn up in 1993, the Chinese government should, by the end of the last century, have increased investment in education to the point where it accounts for 4 percent of the country's GDP. However, the actual percentage, according to figures released in 2010 was 3.66 percent. Even if the target percentage is reached this year, it will still mean that there has been a 12 year delay in reaching it.

The fact that the Chinese government took 19 years to fulfill the commitment indicates two things: That increasing spending on education is no easy task, and that the government has made persistent efforts to do so. However, rather than singing the government's praises, we have to ask why it took so long to reach the spending target. The reflection will help establish a better system for appropriating educational funds, as well as finding right causes to spend the funds.

One of the explanations as to why China's percentage was long below the 4 percent mark is that China is not a particularly rich country. However, this claim is absurd. This is just a percentage, not the absolute value. If we examine global trends regarding GDP percentage spending on education, we find that the average is 4.9 percent, with a 5.1 percent average in developed countries and a 4.1 percent average in developing countries.

The figures show that China cannot even reach the percentage achieved by developing countries, so does that mean that China is poorer than those countries? It cannot have gone unnoticed that China became the world's second largest economic power in 2010. Those who suggested that China is not rich enough to increase spending on education are simply passing the buck rather than attempting to solve the problem.

Generally speaking, the reason why China's percentage for spending on education is low is due to two factors. The first is that China's educational fund guarantee system is ineffective. China's basic education has long had the financial support of only county and village governments. These small government bodies account for 80 percent of the total investment in education, and herein lie the limitations: Different counties and villages have different financial capabilities, which leads to an imbalance in the provision of basic education between counties, particularly in compulsory education.

The second factor is that in China, unlike in developed countries, the government is solely responsible for education funding. By contrast, developed countries have bodies such as national education funding councils and district funding councils. There are also community education councils comprising local residents which can also decide and supervise funding for a particular school. It seems ironic, then, that governments in China can find investment for infrastructure and government buildings. They can find the money to treat guests, buy cars and travel abroad. However, when it comes to education, the pot is empty.

The percentage of education spending has gradually increased in recent years, largely due to the fact that the central government's finance department enhanced transfer payments while provincial finance departments improved their planning for basic education. In this year's work report, Premier Wen pointed out that in 2011, China waived accommodation fees for 30 million rural boarding students. More than 12 million of these students are from poor families in China's central-west regions. Such families also receive financial support from governments.

In the past year, China has established a system of financial support for poor students, thanks to direct funding from the central government. This move not only significantly improves the prospect of meeting the guarantee for education spending, but also effectively improves fairness within the educational system. I believe central government will maintain its efforts to reach the 4 percent mark in 2012.

However, adjustments relating to the second issue mentioned have yet to be made. Some commentators have stated, rather optimistically, that China will have solved its education problems when education spending reaches 4 percent of GDP. Wrong. First, they ignored the fact that China has a considerable spending backlog as far as education is concerned and is still a long way from overhauling this backlog which was added to every year the 4 percent spending mark was missed.

China must do far more than merely maintain the 4 percent spending mark for education if the country is to meet the reform and development goals set out by the 2010 plan for education reform and development. In order to increase spending, the government must adjust the funding system and invite the public to participate in budget decision-making. Government financial transfers must also be supervised in order to ensure adherence to the law. This is an indispensable mechanism to ensure the transparency and effectiveness of spending.

Education is the foundation for China's revival. To this end, the 4 percent of GDP mark is simply a new beginning.

The author is deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute and a professor with Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

(This post was first published in Chinese and translated by Zhang Rui.)

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn

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