In spite of its splendid history and brilliant culture, China could by no means be regarded as a modern civilized country in 1949. During the period when the people were constructing the newly established republic from a state of devastation, only 20 percent of the school-age children were at school, and 80 percent of the adults were illiterate. In the following 50-odd years, it was an important governmental task to eliminate illiteracy and popularize compulsory education. The constant efforts finally led to a great change in the nation’s elementary education, a change spoken of as unprecedented by international society. Since 1984, 11 Chinese units have won prizes from UNESCO for their work in eliminating illiteracy. By the end of the last century, China’s illiteracy rate among young and middle-aged people had dropped to less than five percent.
By the end of the 20th century, the first stage in the national object of popularizing nine-year compulsory education had been realized, guaranteed by the relevant laws and regulations, such as the Compulsory Education Law of the People’s Republic of China, Education Law of the People’s Republic of China, and Teachers Law of the People’s Republic of China. In 2000, 85 percent of the school-age population was receiving nine-year compulsory education throughout China; the gross enrolment ratio of junior middle schools was 88.6 percent; and the attendance rate of school-age children in primary schools was 99.1 percent, exceeding the average levels of the developing countries during the same period.
Higher education has also leaped forward. Its subjects and disciplines have gradually become complete, covering various fields such as philosophy, economics, law, education, literature, art, history and science. The degree system has also been established and reinforced. In 1980, the first Academic Degree Regulations of the People’s Republic of China was issued. By the end of 2000, there were 1,041 regular institutions of higher learning, with 5.56 million students, almost double the 1995 figure; there were 772 adult institutions of higher learning, with 3.54 million students; and 738 postgraduate training units, with 301,000 students.
To keep in step with the development trend of international education, starting from 2001, the teachers’ qualification system officially came into effect, which was aimed at raising the general quality of teachers. According to the system, only those who have legally obtained the qualifications for teaching and have teaching credentials are allowed to work as a teacher. At present, there are 221 teachers colleges and universities, with 1,099,700 students; 683 secondary normal schools, with 769,800 students; and over 10 million teachers throughout China.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, as one of the priorities of China’s economic and social development, education has been a matter of great concern to the government. According to the plan of the Ministry of Education, before 2010, China will have realized the objective of the popularization of higher education, i.e., the enrollment ratio of the students of the right age (18-20) will reach 15 percent, from the present nine percent.