A lack of teachers, quality ones in particular, has become a bottleneck in improving education in underdeveloped areas.
Free teacher education starting this year, which will be offered by six teachers' universities directly under the Ministry of Education, is a move by the central government to solve the problem.
The document released by the State Council last week stipulates that those receiving free teacher education must sign a contract with both the university and their hometown education department to teach in local elementary or middle schools for at least 10 years.
The message is clear that the decision-makers hope that the money the State invests in future teachers will pay off with more quality teachers for the underdeveloped central and western regions.
Another message is that the job of teaching in the underdeveloped regions is not appealing to university graduates.
The document stipulates that graduates breaking the contract must repay all the money the State has expended on their education along with a fine.
The policy of free university education will undoubtedly be attractive to students from poor families who otherwise would not be able to further their education or careers. Those families that cannot afford higher education for their children will be relieved of a heavy burden.
Yet, can we make these graduates love teaching when we bind them to a 10-year contract? This is where efforts beyond designing the contract-binding system are needed.
Working conditions are poor in most of China's underdeveloped regions and so are payments for teachers. Many teachers are unwilling to work in these areas because they believe teachers there are underpaid and poorly treated.
Without efforts to make teaching more attractive, free university education may be considered a trap to lure poor students into an underpaid and underprivileged profession.
Hopefully, the experts and decision-makers who are still working on detailed guidelines for free teacher education will make educated decisions on establishing teaching as a desirable profession throughout the nation.
(China Daily May 21, 2007)