In a series of interviews conducted by China Youth Daily, Vice Minister of Education Zhang Baoqing said college fees are too high for many to afford, especially poor families in remote areas.
On August 29, Zhang criticized eight provincial governments for not working hard enough to guarantee national college student loans, and has since kept the issue in the spotlight on China Central Television and in People's Daily's website.
Fees can now be tens or hundreds of times their level ten years ago, and a survey of poor college candidates released days ago said family incomes of about 1.6 million students were 3,000-4,000 yuan (US$361-482), compared to four college years' costs of at least 28,000 yuan (US$3,374).
Zhang said that, though relatively expensive when compared with average incomes, fees are small when measured against actual investment in higher education, including that in building construction and support for retired teachers.
Costs also vary widely depending on whether students are undergraduates, postgraduates or adult students, and on their particular major and institution. The annual education of a Tsinghua University student can cost 52,000 yuan (US$6,265), while that for a student at a less prestigious college may only cost 20,000 yuan (US$2,410).
Zhang said, "As the highest average annual cost of a university student may exceed 14,000 yuan (US$1,687) and the lowest is about 10,000 yuan (US$1,205). We set 3,500 yuan (US$422) as the current standard fee."
He said individual colleges should be held responsible for charging more than this, and condemned some for finding excuses to get more money out of students.
There were only 3.4 million higher education students in 1998, but the number is 14 million this year. About 400 billion yuan (US$48 billion) is reckoned to be needed to run the country's higher education sector smoothly, but actual input is only 80 billion yuan (US$9.6 billion) and colleges have already borrowed over 100 billion yuan (US$12 billion) from banks.
In some schools, more costly postgraduates outnumber undergraduates. Zhang said charges for postgraduates have been examined for ten years and new policies are now being piloted in nine colleges.
Zhang said there were two options for the future of China's higher education: for government to bear all costs but the number of universities have to be limited, or for access to continue to grow as demand for learning increases and the costs shared between government, students and parents.
(China.org.cn by Zhang Rui, September 12, 2005)