Minister of Education Zhou Ji announced on Monday that an open hearing process will be adopted in setting the ceiling for school fees later this year.
That is a good first step in solving the problem of rampant illegal charges and repairing the damaged image of educational departments.
Enrolment fees, equipment fees, residence archive fees, school construction fees ... you name it. Schools have never lacked excuses for levying exorbitant fees above and beyond government authorization.
In order to raise more money, schools either invent new items of their own, overcharge on existing items, or continue collecting fees which have already been outlawed.
A nationwide inspection of illegal charges in schools by the State Development and Reform Commission and educational authorities from September to November last year revealed 21.4 billion yuan (US$2.6 billion) in illegal charges in more than 12,000 cases.
To tackle such illegal operations the price supervisory authorities promised to launch more inspections in schools where students complain.
And the Ministry of Education decided that starting this autumn, students will only have to make a single payment of fees every school term for compulsory education, while schools are not allowed to charge students in other respects.
To further deal with the problem, education authorities have promised more government investment in education, especially compulsory education in rural areas.
Implemented in impoverished counties in the past two years as a pilot project, the one-payment system has helped reduce economic burden on rural students' families by about 1.7 billion yuan (US$204 million).
Spreading it around the country will certainly benefit more people.
But this single payment cannot be one sum for all. Rural-urban differences, regional differences and many other factors must be taken into account when setting the standard.
Now local educational and pricing departments are in charge of this job in their regions.
Employment of the public hearing mechanism will definitely help make policy-making more scientific and rational.
With participation of the public in setting a ceiling for school fees, implementation of the one-payment system will also be smoother.
What's more, transparency is needed in the whole process. And public supervision will play a decisive role in helping achieve the expected goal of the one-payment practice.
With adequate government investment, one-payment practice and the implementation of supervision and punishment mechanisms, this reform should yield the expected outcome.
(China Daily March 11, 2004)