Last summer, the notice of admission from a university brought nothing more than fleeting joy to Gansu Province youngster Peng Jinbao. His family of five could only manage to put together 4,000 yuan (US$490), barely enough for the first-year's tuition. Added to this the prospective living and miscellaneous costs of 6,000 yuan (US$740) a year, Peng only had one option: give up.
However, he was not prepared to give up on his dream of campus life that easily. He opted to remain at high school for one more year and take the college entrance exam again, in the hope that the extra year would give his family time to save more money. It didn't work. When he applied again this summer, with the top score in his county, all his family could pool was 2,000 yuan (US$247).
Luckily, he should be able to make it this time. Chen Jianjun, secretary of the county Party committee, has reportedly promised that the local government will act as a guarantor for Peng to get a bank loan for college.
While cheering for Chen's conscientious act, should we feel happy for Peng now, or lament the one unnecessary year he has spent in high school? How many such Party secretaries do we need in order to get our poor youngsters into college?
Reality is cruel, and the truth is that being too poor to go to college is torturing tens of thousands of Chinese families every year. I had a reality check recently when I went to a village in the more prosperous south of China. The experience of one family I met there left me dumbfounded.
The two parents were breaking their backs, waking at 3 o'clock in the morning every day, yet were still far from being financially capable of supporting their three children currently in college. It's no secret they have been turning to loan sharks for black money. I can never forget the pervasive sadness told through the father's eyes and fidgeting hands.
In the space of only a decade, China has claimed the unsavoury title of having the most expensive higher learning institutes in the world, relative to per capita GDP, according to a calculation based on surveys released earlier this year. Eleven years ago I was paying 600 yuan (US$74) for my annual college tuition and now it has skyrocketed to over 5,000 yuan (US$620). However, many people's incomes have not risen so impressively.
This has many unwanted impacts. On the students' part, many try whatever they can to take as much of the burden off their families as possible. Given that State-sponsored loans are becoming more and more difficult to come by, there is heated competition to land normal part-time jobs. Other discoveries are disheartening: One boy was recently caught hawking pornographic books. If students are forced to spend their time doing this, how can they concentrate on what they are meant to be doing studying?
The credibility of the higher learning system will take a hit if such deplorable acts continue. When the system itself falls into this mercenary trap, it's hard to envisage that it will be capable of propagating the correct attitudes and senses towards money and the values of life.
Making higher learning reasonably affordable should once again become one of the top priorities of the government.
A 1993 national guideline vowed to invest 4 per cent of the national GDP into education by the year 2000. Today the rate stands at 3.28 per cent. Here one percentage point can make a huge difference. According to one calculation, if only one-third of the targeted increase of one percentage point is channelled into higher learning, it will mean over 30 billion yuan (US$3.7 billion) a year in extra funds, which would be enough to help reduce tuition and fee levels.
Unfortunately this reasoning remains only on paper. It is a big pity that huge funds are poured into infrastructure construction or taken up by bloated administrative structures. From a long-term and sustainable prospective, what else is more valuable than talented and well-educated people?
Why a 10-year old national guideline has failed to come into reality is another tough question that must be tackled. Outcries about exorbitant education costs have been heard for years, but the issue hasn't prompted sufficient momentum to force a change. Are we missing the right channel for the people to express what they are thinking? Or is it simply clogged? No matter what, there is no doubt that the government should be held accountable for this situation.
For now, Peng Jinbao's younger sister is starting her first year of high school. College is just two years ahead, another steep mountain looming for his family to climb. Though it is a shame that underprivileged students can only go to college thanks to the sporadic help of some government officials, and not through a reliable mechanism, I'd like to pray that people keep extending a helping hand to these poor youngsters.
For me, the more that make it to college, the better. On the policy side, it will take time, but the solution is simple: Lower tuitions across the board, and grant free entrance to poor students with brilliant minds like Peng Jinbao.
(China Daily August 9, 2005)