A college acceptance and enrolment notice sent Jing Yanmei and her family into a state of near euphoria, but only for a few moments.
Anxiety over the 5,000 yuan (US$602) tuition fee immediately gripped the farming family in Yulin of northwest China's Shaanxi Province. Feeling desperate and helpless, Jing's father committed suicide several days later.
Media reports ignited widespread sympathy accompanied by donations. Jing got the money for her tuition, but how long will it take her to walk out from the shadow of her father's death?
The tragedy of the Jing family was an extreme case. But those groaning under the heavy burden of college tuition fees are by no means small in number.
Statistics by the finance department of the Ministry of Education indicate that in the recent years students needing help to cover part or all of their tuition fees have comprised around one fourth of the total. By January, the number of college students on campus stood at 13 million.
Tuition fees were introduced in 1989 when each student had to pay 200 yuan (US$24) annually. When the experimental period of the reform ended in 1996, charges began to rise sharply. That year, many colleges and universities raised their fees to 2,000 yuan (US$240).
By 2000, annual tuition fees in most colleges and universities exceeded 4,000 yuan (US$482). And this year, fees for most subjects were around 5,000 yuan (US$602).
Charges for subjects such as foreign languages and medicine are even higher, between 5,000 (US$602) and 6,000 (US$723) in Beijing-based institutions. Fees in colleges of art have risen beyond 10,000 (US$1,205).
The theory behind fee charging is that higher education should not be run on a par with compulsory education since it will bring about high economic returns for the students concerned. In a market economy, higher education is a kind of investment for one's future, so fees are entirely reasonable.
Such a point of view has become widely accepted. But one family's tragedy has sounded the alert that higher education should not be run as an industry for profit.
It is the State and society that is the ultimate beneficiary of higher education and therefore it is in the public interest to provide for it.
According to standards set by the Ministry of Education, annual fees should amount to one fourth of the cost to the university or college for each student. Such a figure, however, is often met with scepticism and many establishments have exceeded that tariff.
Currently, tuition fees have risen so that they now far outstrip average incomes.
Statistics indicate that during 1990 and 1997, tuition fees averaged a rise of 20 per cent, compared to a 6 per cent growth rate in income during the same period.
In 2000, the per capita annual income of urban residents was 6,280 yuan (US$757). In the light of this, the 4,000-5,000 yuan (US$482-602) college tuition fees have become a heavy burden. But for those in the countryside the picture is grim, with average incomes of around only 2,253 yuan (US$271) per capita.
The soaring rise in fees was out of sync with incomes and would have resulted in more widespread crushing of a dream of a college education for many more if a system of financial assistance had not been introduced.
But there do exist a number of measures to cushion the financial shocks of the cost of higher education. And to ensure that students from poverty-stricken families do not find themselves shut out of colleges and universities, a series of policies have been worked out by the government which incorporate scholarships, subsidies, exemptions, loans and part-time work.
Colleges and universities are required to contribute 10 per cent of their income from fees to help those students from impoverished backgrounds.
Since 1999, such students have been eligible to apply for student loans from State-owned commercial banks, which require no guarantee, while central or local revenues shoulder part of the loan interest.
By April last year, 2.64 billion yuan (US$318 million) of contracted loans had been signed, benefiting 317,000 students.
In September last year, a national scholarship fund totalling 200 million yuan (US$24 million) a year was established, which awards 45,000 excellent students each year. All the award-winners are also completely exempt from tuition fees.
Other bursaries initiated by other social groups also provide an important source of assistance for those from poor families.
According to education authorities, if existing policies are properly carried out, the government's oath that "not a single college student plagued by poverty should be abandoned" can be realized.
These well-intentioned programmes, however, are not always properly implemented.
For example, the government-sponsored loan programme has not been wholeheartedly embraced by commercial banks. The administration of small loans has increased costs incurred by the banks, but more importantly exposed them to greater risks through payment defaults.
So much more remains to be done.
Last Tuesday, the Ministry of Education issued an urgent document reiterating the government's determination to ensure that financial help reaches every student in need.
As the new semester approaches, the education watchdog has asked all colleges and universities to open a "green passage" in registration for those who fail to collect enough money for their tuition fees.
In any incidence of a student being rejected, on account of inability to pay tuition fees, the college or university concerned will be held directly accountable, said the document.
It also requires detailed information on available assistance programmes be sent together with the acceptance and enrolment notice. Lack of information about available financial assistance programmes is thought to have been an important factor in the death of Jing's father.
Will the policy of the education authorities be fully implemented? Only time will tell. If it is, then the tragedy we have heard much about of late, the unnecessary death of a farmer in Shaanxi, will never be repeated.
(China Daily July 29, 2003)