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Poor Students Must Get Immediate Help

The drive to build a harmonious society will not be achieved simply by continually expanding the economy not even by balancing income distribution among different social groups.

A factor that is often ignored, but is ultimately crucial for achieving that noble end, is the equality of education. It is the only way poor rural residents will be able to ameliorate their lives.

China is a vast country with complicated demographics. About two-thirds of its 1.3 billion population live in rural areas, where farmers earn far less than their urban cousins. Most of the country's deprived population are rural residents.

Fettered by weak economies and poor educational infrastructure, many children in rural areas have to make do with substandard primary and secondary schooling.

Even when talented and hardworking young students are admitted to universities, they often find college tuition too expensive.

Tuition and fees alone are often two or three times the per capita net income of a farmer. This has kept many rural youths away from universities.

A national research programme found that as tuition and fees rose there was a marked decline in the proportion of rural students at three of the nation's top universities during the 1990s, up to 5.7 percentage points.

Some of society's poorest yet most talented students have been deprived of the opportunity of climbing the social ladder through education.

Rocketing tuition is also a problem for the urban poor, as the country's painful but necessary economic transition churns out large numbers of unemployed or low-income earners.

As the nation's college enrolment programme gets under way, debate about whether college tuition is too expensive has again surfaced. While some argue students unfairly shoulder too much of the cost, the authorities respond by saying there should no longer be such a thing as a free lunch.

But with helpless students desperately seeking financing to pay for their tuition, it is important to figure out ways to help them.

There have been reports of despairing parents committing suicide because they cannot afford to send their children to university. Money worries also weigh heavily on the students themselves.

We must do something to stop this. It is not only our moral duty, but also a pragmatic way to improve social equality and harmony.

Currently the student loan programme is bogged down in a trust crisis as many students default on loan repayment, either for reasons of conscience or through failure to find a job in an ever more competitive labour market. Risk-conscious commercial banks have become much more strict.

The media and various social organizations are holding campaigns to pool donations, private or corporate, for poor students. But donations cannot reach all of the needy.

The Ministry of Education once required colleges to earmark 10 per cent of the tuition they collected to help poor students. But little is known about how colleges implemented the order.

A solution to the problem lies in an all-round package of policies State subsidies, State policies to ensure banks do not lose out if they grant loans to students, reform of higher education to allow more competition and choice, and a temporary nationwide financial assistance system for poor students during enrolment seasons. All demand instant action.

(China Daily July 25, 2005)

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