February 20 was an important day for Mrs Yang from Beijing. It was her daughter's first day of the new school term. It was also the due date for tuition fees. Carrying 7,000 yuan (US$870.6) in cash, Yang was up early to rush to the junior high school to pay the fees.
The school is jointly run by a key senior high school and a company. "For the past couple of years, we have found it very hard to manage with the high tuition fees," Yang told China Economic Weekly on February 27. "We're very lucky to have our daughter enrolled in that excellent school, even if it does not provide board and lodging. We pay what the school tells us to pay, but dare not ask to take a look at their itemized accounts."
The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) on February 19 publicized a blacklist of eight schools accused of charging excessive tuition fees totaling some 22.7 million yuan (US$2.8 million).
This drew a mixed response from the schools involved. Nearly half of them thought that the accusations were unjustified. The Ministry of Education, however, did not release any statement on the matter, which only fuelled the discussion.
The ministry eventually made a statement on February 22. Its stand was clear. It urged the eight schools involved to improve their management and performance to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents in the future.
Over the years, education costs have been eating more into overall family expenses for many Chinese households. In addition, an annual Quality-of-Life Index (QLI) report released in January shows that 40 to 50 percent of low-income families in cities, small towns and villages attribute their dire financial circumstances to increasing educational costs.
The research, conducted last October by Horizon Group, a Beijing-headquartered polling firm, and its subsidiary, Horizonkey.com, indicates that from October 2004 to October 2005, children's education accounted for 32.6 percent of a typical rural family's total income. The figure was 25.9 percent and 23.3 percent respectively for families in cities and small towns.
Schools have become an object of public condemnation for their exorbitant fees. Ironically, teachers' living conditions have not improved significantly despite increased fees. In fact, many teachers, particularly in the rural areas, are paid low salaries. Moreover, many are not paid on time.
Qi Shu, president of a middle school in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, told China Economic Weekly that the nine-year compulsory education policy has meant that schools have to self-finance their teaching programs, and many are simply unable to do so. Loans are a desperate last resort measure for many schools to keep their operations going.
With regard to investment in education, the central government's contribution amounts to only 9 percent. Provincial governments contribute 13 percent. The sum total of these contributions are channeled to funding universities and key middle schools. All other educational institutions have to either rely on local budgetary appropriations or raise their own funds.
Zhang Baoqing, former vice minister of education, once admitted: "Based on my investigations, it is not elementary and secondary schools but local governments (at county or municipal level) that have forced schools to charge exorbitant fees."
Qi pointed out that current educational investments are not only insufficient but also severely imbalanced. Established schools have ample funds and their reputation alone is enough to attract qualified teachers, thereby guaranteeing a steady student enrollment. In sharp contrast, it's a vicious cycle for poorly funded schools that lose both teachers and students on a regular basis.
In an attempt to resolve the problem of fund shortages, many private schools have mushroomed within the campuses of prestigious public schools to increase student intake. However, there is a catch. Such institutions do not abide by the principle of providing nine years of compulsory education. Mrs Yang's daughter attends such a school.
These schools are of a 'new type'; although approved by the relevant authorities, they are considered to be responsible for high tuition fees. And there is no real way of controlling the situation. At the same time, their value and honesty have been called into question by both the media and educators.
According to Ji Zhu, dean of the World Economy Research Center at Beijing Technology and Business University (BTBU), a government education reform and development program launched in 1993 stated "Expenditure on education will account for 4 percent of the gross national product (GNP) by the end of the century."
"It's been more than a decade since that program was announced, but its goal hasn't been achieved," Ji said. "From 1991 to now, the country's economy registered an average growth of 9.7 percent, while the proportion of expenditure on education to gross domestic product (GDP) hovered around 2.6 percent." Ji added that China ranks almost last in Asia in terms of investment in education.
"Overcharging for tuition is a national problem," Qi said. "It's unfair to put all the blame on individual schools because, in most cases, they had the formal permission or tacit consent of higher authorities to do so."
Qi added that in the draft amendment to the Law on Compulsory Education, which was agreed in principle by the State Council on January 4, "The undertaker of compulsory educational work has been expressly changed from 'the people' to 'the government'. It's hoped that this is a good start."
Since China carried out a reform in the administrative system of elementary education in 1985, collecting tuition fees and other extras has become an important way of making up the shortfall, according to Ding Xiaohao, vice dean of the Institute of Economics of Education at Peking University.
"To lessen the economic burden on Chinese families, the government should gradually reduce tuition fees and other extras until such time that they are eliminated altogether. At the same time, the government should strive to realize a balanced distribution of resources among schools to ensure that all children receive the same standards of education," Ding added.
The concept of a free nine-year compulsory education for all might be making some headway in terms of implementation. Delivering the government work report at the ongoing Fourth Plenary Session of the 10th National People's Congress (NPC) on Sunday, Premier Wen Jiabao pledged that the government would eliminate all charges for rural students receiving a nine-year compulsory education before the end of 2007.
The new policy will benefit some 160 million children in China's vast rural regions who account for nearly 80 percent of the country's primary and junior middle school student population.
(China.org.cn by Shao Da, March 8, 2006)