Thousands of young people in China are overjoyed when they get the news that they have been admitted to an institution of higher learning after enduring years of painstaking studies and extremely competitive entrance examinations. But Lin Xue from Dalian in northeast China's Liaoning Province wept for days after being accepted by China Medical University in 2000.
Although she longed to enter the university in Shenyang, the provincial capital, renowned for its medical science programme, Lin decided, reluctantly, to hide the letter of admission from her parents and give up the singular opportunity to change her destiny.
"I was fully aware that my parents could not possibly afford my tuition and living expenses, Lin recalls. Both of her farmer parents were in poor health at the time; her father had been plagued by vasculitis (inflammation of the blood vessels) for years, and her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer just before Lin took the national college entrance examination.
"My family was already deeply in debt, she says. Their farming income barely made ends meet for the family of four. "As my younger brother was still in high school, I decided that my college tuition would be too great a burden for my parents.
Lin gave up the idea of college and tried to find a job. Meanwhile, she recalls, she was in total despair, "unable to see any hope."
Fortunately, her story found its way into the press, fostering sympathy and help for Lin. Doctors at a local hospital donated 6,000 yuan (US$720), allowing her to resume her studies a year after she had given up any thought of university.
In 2002, Lin Xue passed the entrance examination once again and finally realized her dream of attending China Medical University, which agreed to waive her tuition until her family's financial situation improves. Lin also received a donation of 2,000 yuan (US$240) from the New Great Wall programme launched by the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFFPA) in 2002 to provide stipends to college students from needy families.
The cost of higher education began to soar in the mid-1990s, when the Chinese Government stopped completely covering it in the State budget as part of the reform of China's higher education system. Tuition fees shot from several hundred yuan a year in the 1980s to 3,500 yuan (US$420) or 5,000 yuan (US$600), with the highest fees reaching 8,000 yuan (US$960), not counting lodging and boarding expenses.
Such costs made a university education an unbearable luxury for families living below the poverty line whose per capita monthly income is less than 200 yuan (US$25). Hence, Lin Xue's decision to give up her plans for college in 2000, and the more recent tragedy of Jing Yanmei, a high school graduate from Shaanxi Province whose father committed suicide at the news that the girl had been enrolled at the Northeast Normal University this year. The farmer father despaired at his inability to pay for his daughter's college expenses.
Thus, the nation is confronted with the dilemma of whether children from needy families, such as Lin and Jing, should be deprived of the right to a higher education simply because of their financial situation. As a statistic released by the CFFPA indicates, about 20 per cent of the country's 16 million college students come from poor families.
The Ministry of Education had warned colleges and universities to look after students from impoverished families and provide them with aid when it first initiated the higher education reform. Last year, the ministry launched a State scholarship programme to grant a total of 200 million yuan (US$24 million) a year to assist 45,000 needy college students who maintain excellent academic records. Such students are also entitled to a tuition waiver. At the same time, the ministry demanded that colleges and universities open what they termed "green access to newly enrolled students from poor families to help them sort out the financial problems.
Following the tragedy of Jing Yanmei's father, the ministry reiterated its policy that not a single student should be denied a college education due to financial difficulties.
"The point is, observes Tang Jun, a social policy researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), "the State-funded colleges and universities should not be managed and operated as profit-making enterprises, although he feels the price of higher education is reasonable in the market economy. "But poor students should be given access to relief, he adds.
He Jianming, a writer known for his studies on the issue of students from needy families, authored a report based on his investigations of 40 colleges and universities across China. He notes that the issue is drawing more and more attention from society and policy-makers alike.
"As poverty cannot be eliminated overnight, there are bound to be many needy families in our country, says the author of Turning Tears to Gold. His report on the plight of college students from financially strapped families sold well after publication and aroused extensive public concern for these students.
He says that the death of Jing Yanmei's father could have been avoided if the "green access policy had been publicized more widely. But he adds he is relieved to know that the Northeast Normal University has informed the daughter of a "green access opening for her, and she has also received a donation from the New Great Wall programme.
He Jianming is delighted to see that an effective mechanism for assisting poor college students is being established, including bank loans, social relief and part-time work opportunities in addition to scholarships. "That brings about hope, not only to the needy students but also to our society, he says.
Many people share the feeling with He. "A few thousand yuan might not mean so much to us, says a donor to the New Great Wall programme who asked to remain anonymous. "But to those needy students, it makes a great difference. I feel rewarded if I can do something to give them a hand on their way to success.
The real estate company employee and a friend donated 2,000 yuan (US$240). "We have benefited from development and reform and are becoming better off, says the man as he signs the donation contract. "We should care more about those who are not so lucky.
He Daofeng, vice-chairman of CFFPA, says that college students will be the backbone of China's future development, "so society should look after and assist students from needy families."
Dong Yaohui, secretary general of the China Great Wall Association, insists that the aid provided is not poverty relief in a general sense. "We do not assist them out of sympathy. Instead, we do it out of respect and admiration for their courage and success. So we are cheering them on to further success.
In addition to tending to the financial needs of students from poor families, says Yang Weimin, a sociologist with Beijing-based Renmin University of China, their psychological well-being should not be neglected. Aside from economic pressures, "they may suffer even greater pressure psychologically, he says. "A bank loan or a donation might ease their financial burden, but it may not rid them of mental and emotional stress. Living with classmates from well-off families can leave them feeling overly sensitive in certain situations and sometimes even inferior. Some of them decide not to mingle with others and end up isolating themselves.
Zhang Hu, a sophomore majoring in food science and engineering at China Agriculture University in Beijing, confirms Yang's concerns with his personal experience. The young man from the poverty-stricken Zhangbei County of Hebei Province says he hates to be interviewed by news media wanting him to repeat his family's misfortune. "It seems like a kind of torture, says Zhang, who also benefits from the New Great Wall programme and is now working as a programme volunteer during the summer vacation.
However, Zhang says, it is worth it if the exposure of his struggles can help rouse greater attention to the issue among his peers, adding that he gets along with students from better-off families quite well.
Li Jianguo, a computer major at Peking University who is from a well-to-do family and now works together with Zhang Hu in the New Great Wall programme, says he has found much to learn from students like Zhang. "Not everybody is born rich, but poverty can serve as a valuable experience that can make people more courageous and stronger, he observes.
Tang Jun of CASS lauds providing part-time work opportunities to poor college students as an effective means of helping them. "It is much better than simply giving them donations, as it gives them the feeling of independence, he says. "It also gives them chances to learn more about society.
(China Daily HK Edition August 26, 2003)