Education is important to China’s future, and education reform has been a long drawn-out complex process, which people of all stripes agree has basically been inadequate. From the early days of Project Hope corruption to the current education spending that still hasn’t reached the 4%-of-GDP target set by the central government, people have much to complain about. Among all the problems, one most depressing had to have been that basic primary/secondary education required all kinds of fees and therefore no universal access to education existed.
Recently, this topic of compulsory education came up again in the news, and the focus is again on whether the government does not have the resources or will to further invest in education. Here is a translated commentary that will open our debate here. It is seen on the China Elections & Governance web site (joint project between Carter Center and Renmin University), itself a treasure trove of current policy thinking.
By Zhang Gang (April 3, 2009)
In China, anything touching on negative news or requiring the government to bear “greater responsibility” will see somebody jump forth to deny it.
This is perhaps politics with Chinese characteristics.
A few days ago, Deputy Director Sun Xiaoyun of the China Youth Research Center under the CCP Youth League revealed during an interview that the 9-year compulsory education may be expanded to 12 years, but whether the extension is to be upward to include high school, or downward to include pre-school hasn’t been worked out yet.
Even while this news hasn’t been out for 24 hours, there is already somebody from the Ministry of Education jumping out to say, “Because a characteristic of compulsory education is that it’s free education, currently the country still doesn’t have the financial resources.”
Actually, the Ministry need not have been so hasty, we countrymen already have a well-rehearsed attitude of not daring to believe one promise out of a hundred. Only, what shocked me is this is the first time I have heard from people affiliated with the Ministry of Education that, one characteristic of compulsory education is that it’s supposed to be free education. Aiyaya, how I have been ignorant!
Let me dial this back 14 years.
In 1995, I graduated from a teacher’s university and was allocated to a village middle school to teach. During this, the head teacher of the same grade became seriously ill. The principal saw I was “young and promising” (the principal found me after being turned down by numerous teachers), so gave me a heavy responsibility: I would take over the cohort. As I had a boiling blood of passion in my heart, I accepted on the spot. It was a kind of come-what-may enthusiasm.
It came quickly to the close of the year, and time to collect the annual tuition and miscellaneous fees. In my eyes, paying tuition and misc. fees was perfectly natural, as natural as going to the market to buy food. For instance, in 1984 (two years before the compulsory education law), I paid 5 quid of tuition and fees. Five years later, I paid 120 quid for middle school. When I finally turned from student into teacher, tuition for the second year of middle school had already grown to 270 yuan. Since I was taking over, it was the first that I learned of the unspoken rules: anyone paying in 20 days is rewarded with school supplies (these were all stuff sent from above that were supposed to be given to students but weren’t, so now they were prizes), and the head teacher gets 10 yuan for every paying student; anyone paying from day 21 to 30 receives no reward, while the head teacher gets 5 yuan. With such rewards, the teachers complied well. Old-hand head teachers would quickly collect from a good proportion of students. From observation, classical tactics included linking paying fees with two-student competition (that is, two students would compete on variuos quantifiable areas, and periodically the loser buys stuff for the winner as punishment). This was most effective among students with good grades or well-to-do families; for such students it was about face, more than winning or losing. For the students without good grades or were not proactive in paying for economic reasons, the policy was stern and merciless shaming, e.g. announce who hadn’t paid every three days. Students without thick skins would find all possible ways to get their parents to comply, and the thick-skinned stubborn elements required parent meetings, writing promisory letters, making them listen to lecture from the outside, even turning them out of school.
This young and promising youth knew not what to do after seeing this. After one week, other head teachers were doing well, but those paying in the class I led could be counted on one hand. Although I was very reluctant, the leaders still encouraged me to put down my baggage and start the machine. I started to chat with students heart-to-heart, trying to convince them or move them, to no avail. During this time, a naughty student’s question “shocked” me: Teacher, our “Civics” textbook says our country practices 9 years of compulsory education, then why do we still have to pay? Foreign countries also have compulsory education but they don’t charge their students. This question aroused resonance with other students: Yes, yes, even the textbook says it’s compulsory education, why do they still charge us?
I didn’t know how to answer immediately. It was a question that confounded me for many years. Back when I was at the teacher’s college, we even studied the “Compulsory Education Law” especially. Why is compulsory education not free?
I felt really ignorant and stupid, so I reported to the principal and sought advice from “more experienced” teachers. Clearly, they could not give me a satisfactory answer, just as I could not give one to my students, for they gave me a “superglue” (catch-all) answer: our situation has special characteristics, doing otherwise does not accord with our country’s condition. But they asked me not to tell the students that, but to tell them “compulsory education means the law requires your parents to send you to school to study, that’s your parents’ responsibility; if they don’t send you to school, they break the law!”
Not much afterwards, at the request of sir principal, I proactively handed my cohort to a “richly experienced” vice principal, the reason being failure of execution: I had neither the thick skin to play my students, nor the words to convince them.
Just like that, my short-lived “leadership” career was over.
But I had no regrets, but rather “matured” from it. I learned from many common people the ways of life that a noble person would never comprehend:
From the school accountant I learned that “what you get to see has absolutely no problems, the problems you absolutely do not get to see.” From the old fenqing I learned that “in China, but for corruption, everything is fake.” From the director responsible for maintenance, I learned “what is the purpose of construction? it isn’t to let people live in a building, but to see it fall down soon so it can be rebuilt; what is the purpose of paving a road? it isn’t to let people walk on it, but to see it break down soon so it can be repaved.” It is said that these have become classical catch-phrases, not just words on paper.
Living life requires experience? Or rather, wisdom lives in the people?
—Today is the first time that I have ever heard somebody from the Ministry of Education say that compulsory education is actually free! This really astonished me! That is to say, due to comforming to the needs of our country’s condition, from year 1986 (tuition waived) to year 2006 (Compulsory Education Law revised to waive tuition and misc. fees), we have been all along breaking the law, and letting our children see us break the law and lie to them?