The importance of compulsory education
Among the remarkable achievements of the People's Republic of China in the 70 years since its founding is the nine-year compulsory education system. Thanks to the nine-year compulsory education, China has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, which is a great achievement considering that in 1949, the country's primary-school enrollment rate was only about 25 percent.
Efforts to raise the literacy rate in China didn't yield the desired results until the nine-year compulsory education system was introduced in 1986. The rapid growth of the Chinese economy played a big role in making the literacy campaign a success, especially because governments at all levels included the progress in the nine-year compulsory education system in the officials' work performance.
On Jan 1, 2001, the Chinese government declared that the country had basically succeeded in promoting the nine-year compulsory education from the primary to the middle school level and thus eradicated illiteracy in most parts of the country.
The battle against illiteracy then shifted to the country's western and poverty-stricken areas. By 2010, more than 98 percent of the country's young adults were covered by the compulsory education system. As such, less than 2 percent of the country's young adults and less than 5 percent adults were illiterate in 2010.
China completed the task of implementing the compulsory education system in the country in November 2011. In 2018, the nine-year graduation rate was 94.2 percent, and the country had 213,800 elementary and secondary schools with 149.9 million students.
Moreover, since reform and opening-up significantly raised the demand for talents, the college enrollment rate for 18-to 22-year-olds increased from 1.55 percent in 1978 to 9.76 percent in 1998. The rate climbed to 15 percent in 2002, three years after the universities began increasing enrollments in 1999. And by 2018, China had 2,663 higher education institutions with more than 1.67 million full-time teachers and 38.33 million students.
In particular, the emergence of private educational institutions has broken the monopoly of State-funded schools, enhanced the efficiency of educational resources and given students another option to fulfill their academic dreams. They have thus made a big contribution to the development of education in China.
From 2002 to 2017, the increase in the numbers of private institutions and students in those institutions were 120,000 and 40 million. During the same period, the numbers of State-funded institutions and students in those schools declined by 280,000 and 25 million. But 99 percent of the education funds, which increased from 350 billion yuan ($50.90 billion) to 3,400 billion yuan, were spent on public schools.
In other words, public schools spent about 10 times more funds in 2017 than 15 years ago but enrolled fewer students than private schools.
However, despite China making great achievements on the education front, it still faces certain problems. For instance, given the gap between the standard of education in cities and rural areas, even among different schools in cities, a large number of rural students seek to study in cities, leading to overcrowded classes in many schools－over 56 students in one classroom. In fact, in 2018 there were 178,700 "super-classrooms" in primary schools and 86,300 in middle schools, accounting for 6.49 percent and 8.62 percent of the total classes in the country.
This calls for measures to be taken to ensure compulsory education is provided uniformly and more fairly to students. A large percentage of the more than 15.2 million students studying in private elementary and secondary schools last year were "left behind children", who are disadvantaged as their parents' incomes are lower than a majority of households and many of them can't get education subsidies as government funding is yet to flow into private schools.
The nine-year compulsory education system needs to be made more efficient, too. School buildings and classrooms have been refurbished in recent years, but poor teaching methods and unqualified teachers still make education less attractive for some school-age children.
Therefore, the education authorities have to take measures to improve the quality of education in rural schools. It is also important to nurture creative minds that in the future will help China become an innovative and prosperous economy.
The author is a senior researcher at the National Institute of Education Sciences. The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.