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Back Education Reform with Firm Legal Support

Premier Wen Jiabao has promised to scrap all tuition fees within two years for compulsory rural education. In the coming years, the central government is obliged to make sure its commitment is fulfilled and its policies are not disregarded at the local level.

In the longer term, the central government will have to lead its local counterparts in ensuring national compulsory education strategies are seriously implemented, so as to create a sustainable engine to drive the country's development.

One of the core issues of compulsory education is input. Financial difficulties have forced some rural families to withdraw their children from school. Although the government has scrapped education-related fees for farmers in the tax-for-fee reform, some poverty-stricken rural families, with meagre incomes, remain unable to shoulder the expenditure of even a basic education.

Our premier's promise at Monday's Fifth High Level Group Meeting on Education For All, which was sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), gives hope to those families.

This is in fact a policy of wider significance, in that it will have a great bearing on the country's compulsory education system as a whole, given that 50 per cent of the country's junior middle school students and 80 per cent of its primary students are in rural areas.

Fulfilling commitments, however, is always more challenging than making them. As the next step, the central government should make explicit fiscal arrangements to ensure the financial hole in grass-roots education is filled. Otherwise, the policy may risk fizzling out.

An estimated 20 billion yuan (US$2.5 billion) is required for the implementation of the free compulsory education drive. Where the money would come from within the cabinet and how it would be distributed at the local level must be made clear.

Once the money reaches the grassroots level, how to ensure it is not diverted for other uses is another challenge facing policy-makers. Since the 1994 fiscal sharing reform and the recent tax-for-fee reform, the county and township governments have seen their revenues decrease. And education may be sacrificed for the sake of other causes.

"The devil is in the details" is a useful mantra, and not just for business managers. Implementation determines success or failure of a policy.

We have learnt this from experience: Some policies, despite their potential to bring about public good, simply cannot be implemented, and fail.

In 1993, the government promised in a national plan it would have increased the ratio of the country's educational input to its gross domestic product to 4 per cent by the end of last century. Even now the figure remains lower than promised.

The law can be an effective tool for implementing some crucial national strategies. It is more binding than official promises and pledges.

In the case of educational investment, it is better for China to revise its compulsory education law to explicitly define the concrete responsibilities of the government at each level. Liabilities and punishment should also be detailed to make the government more accountable.

The current law on compulsory education lacks such stipulations, so it is hard for the law to play the role it deserves.

(China Daily November 30, 2005)

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