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Single Fee Policy Welcome, But Not Enough

The country's educational authorities announced last week that starting from this autumn, students will only have to make a single payment of school fees every school term for compulsory education which covers six years in primary school and three years in junior middle school.


Local educational and pricing departments will set the ceiling for the fees for incidental expenses and books in the region, while schools are not allowed to charge students in other respects.


Such a decision is aimed at banning random charges, and is certainly good news for millions of students and their families.


But there are still things to worry about behind this rosy picture, especially in the area of rural education.


Past experiences in rural schools show that government subsidies often fail to meet the gap between fees collected and expenses needed.


The practice of setting an upper limit on school fees was first adopted in poverty-stricken rural areas in 2001. And it has been carried out in most primary and junior middle schools in the country's State-subsidized impoverished counties now.


It has been of some benefit to many school-age children and helped relieve the burden on their families. But insufficient funding continues to be a cause of concern for schools, and even affecting their normal operations.


Compulsory education in rural China was co-funded by counties, townships and villages in the past, leading to sharp differences in school budgets as local tax incomes vary from place to place.


The abolition of a special surcharge on rural education in March 2002 as part of the tax-for-fee reform has reduced the burden on rural families, but at the same time weakened funding for rural education.


County-level governments were required to oversee investment on compulsory education and school management. But county-level governments, especially in poverty-stricken areas, are actually unable to shoulder all financial responsibilities.


The financial plight of rural schools directly leads to the loss of teachers and the worsening of teaching conditions. Some of these schools then have to collect extra money from students to keep the school running.


Without sufficient compensation from the government and society, the fixed-fee collection practice alone can hardly curb the problem of rampant charging of fees. What's worse, it may affect the quality of education.


Hence, the decision to spread the fixed-fee collection practice to the entire country, though nobody questions its good intentions, will certainly be a tougher task.


South China's Guangdong Province implemented fixed-amount charging systems on a trial basis in all primary and middle schools over the past two years. Similar problems involving meagre resources were also found to be affecting normal teaching in urban schools.


Some people in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, even think the fixed-amount charging practice is not suitable in developed cities, because it cannot meet the increasing demand for a better learning environment from students and their families, and also limits initiatives by schools to develop extra-curricular activities or quality educational experiences.


For a country as huge, populous and unevenly developed as China, not all things should be made rigidly uniform. And the limit on fees should not turn out to be a limit on the development of education.


Thus, the government should attach more importance to allocating funds and mobilizing social resources to support compulsory education. Local authorities should take efforts in assigning new measures according to the specific circumstances in each case.


(China Daily March 5, 2004)

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