Just before this year's Teachers' Day on September 10, top rural teachers were invited to a symposium in Beijing. One of their activities was to visit schools in the capital city. Yet several representatives beat a retreat after visiting just one school.
A school headmaster from the hinterland of Qinghai Province told reporters frankly: "We felt more upset while visiting the school because there is too much of a difference and probably we can never catch up with them."
This episode is telling enough to urge us to examine the state of China's rural education.
China's rural education has progressed greatly in recent years. The system of nine-year compulsory education has been popularized, and illiteracy among young people has reduced greatly. A county-township-village training system has been set up to promote agricultural technology and adult education. Government input to rural education also increased substantially to 99 billion yuan (US$11.97 billion) in 2002 from the 43 billion yuan (US$5.2 billion) in 1997.
Yet rural education is still struggling.
The loss of teachers, increasing number of student drop-outs and growing gap between urban and rural educational levels ... all these problems can be summed up in one: lack of money for rural education.
According to Liu Bing, former vice-minister of education, the country's spending on education is increasing. Yet the expenditure per capita for primary and middle schools has actually dropped slightly since 1999.
By 2000, 85 per cent of the Chinese population were covered by the nine-year compulsory education scheme. This goal was achieved 14 years after the law on compulsory education was introduced in 1986. It was achieved partly because funding for education was raised through various channels, including collecting extra fees from farmers.
But, looking back, the target was met at the cost of burdening farmers, Liu said.
Then in 1999, tax-for-fee reform took place. It played an important role in reducing the burdens on farmers but at the same time undermined the fund-raising system for rural education.
County-level governments later took over the management of personnel and finance for compulsory education in rural China. Funds for rural education are co-sponsored by the central, provincial, municipal and county-level governments.
According to a Xinhua News Agency report, by the end of May, more than 98 per cent of county-level divisions had taken back the task of managing teachers' salaries. Ninety-four per cent had taken control of personnel management.
In 2002, the central government transferred 24.35 billion yuan (US$2.94 billion) to local governments for rural education. This money played a key role in guaranteeing salaries for rural teachers. A special fund worth 9.58 billion yuan (US$1.16 billion) has also been launched for compulsory education in the countryside. Government spending on education has reached 3.41 per cent of the gross domestic product.
But it still falls short of the needs of students. And the gap between rural and urban education in China is widening.
This gap has far-reaching implications.
Underdeveloped education systems in rural areas constrains their ability to upgrade the skills of rural labourers.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, there were 482 million rural labourers in 2001, accounting for 70 per cent of the country's total labour force. Of them, 7.4 per cent were illiterate or only partly literate, 31.1 per cent had received a primary school education, and 49.3 per cent had a junior middle school education. Only 12.2 per cent had a senior middle school or higher education.
The low educational level of labourers in rural areas undoubtedly affects the development of the rural economy and national economy as a whole.
Statistics from the agricultural department show that technical personnel only account for 0.71 per cent of rural labourers. There is only one agricultural technician for every 467 hectares of land, one forestry technician for every 1,258 hectares of forest, and one veterinarian for every 7,000 head of livestock. As a result, around 70 per cent of technical advances cannot be popularized in rural areas due to the lack of technical personnel.
The development of rural areas, where 64 per cent of the country's total population live, is of vital importance to China's modernization campaign. Yet without a well-educated labour force, rural areas are unlikely to prosper.
Fortunately, the authorities have realized the importance of rural education and are trying to improve the situation.
A national conference on rural education was held on September 19 and 20 to discuss the issue and come up with recommendations for improvement.
Premier Wen Jiabao stressed at its opening ceremony that rural education is a driving force in the building of a well-off society in an all-round way.
The State Council issued its decision to strengthen rural education after the conference, making it a priority for national education policy.
It aims to meet the "two basic targets" of universal nine-year compulsory education and eradication of illiteracy among young and middle-aged people in the less-developed western regions in five years. Promoting adult education among farmers to increase the efficiency of agriculture and farmers' incomes is also stressed.
The decision directs the State to divert central funding to rural education. New poverty-relief funds from the central and regional governments will be used to support educational causes in poor rural areas.
The central and regional governments share responsibilities for meeting the basic requirements of compulsory education in rural areas. County governments are expected to do more to meet expenses for compulsory education through increased central funding. New increases in educational spending will mainly go to the rural areas.
And a mechanism will be established to ensure that children of poor rural families can go to school. By 2007, children of poor families will all have access to free text books, accommodation subsidies and be exempt from miscellaneous expenses.
All this news is really encouraging. And people can justifiably expect that, given it has become a top priority of the central government today, rural education will become much better tomorrow.
(People's Daily October 9, 2003)