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Make education affordable for all
By Huang Xiangyang (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-07-23 13:23

For those students who have long cherished the dream of going to university and have worked so hard to realize it, July should be a month of harvest.

Universities nationwide are starting to send their admission notices to the 4 million successful candidates. It is good to see hardworking students rewarded with a chance to continue their studies at institutions of higher learning, which often leads to a promising future - as you sow, so will you reap.

Yet the proverb does not hold true for a growing number of students who have taken the national entrance exam. They are the poor, be they from rural or urban areas, and they account for about 10 per cent of the 4 million. Most, however, are from rural areas, where per capita annual income is around 2,000 yuan (US$240). Their families, many debt-ridden, believe that "knowledge can change fate," and have used every ounce of their limited resources to support their children through high school. For them, the average annual tuition fee of 6,000 yuan (US$720) set by universities - not including accommodation and other expenses - could be the last straw.

This annual cost eats up the yearly incomes of three farmers combined. To raise that amount, a rural family often has to sell valuables such as cattle and houses, which plunges them deeper into the cycle of debt.

For poor students, a university admission notice can bring more pain than pleasure, as they are forced to make the hard decision between accepting it and making life even harder for their families, or abandoning this hard-won opportunity that could offer hopes of a brighter future.

So, at this time of the year, we hear a lot of sad, depressing and sometimes tragic tales about university recruits from the lower layers of the social stratum. Last August, a farmer in Liaoyang, Northeast China's Liaoning Province, hanged himself in despair, as he could not afford his son's tuition fees. He was not the first, and will definitely not be the last victim of the current practice of rampant tuition fee collection if it goes on unchecked.

Debate over what are considered reasonable fees has been going on for years since the system was initiated in the early 1990s. In spite of strong opposition from students, parents and academics, tuition fees are 20 times more expensive today than they were 15 years ago. The average household income of Chinese citizens, however, has risen by a meagre 2 to 3 times over the same period.

Supporters of the higher fees, mainly universities, have listed many reasons to justify them. They argue that annual university enrolment has quadrupled since 1998, and income from fee collection is used to expand campuses, upgrade facilities and train teachers. This in turn sustains the growth of enrolment and creates more education opportunities for high school graduates.

They also believe that a seat in a university classroom is a kind of luxury, not a necessity, for ordinary Chinese families. It should be available only to those who can afford it; and as for those who cannot, their right to education has been guaranteed by the country's nine-year compulsory education system.

I am not against reasonable charges for education, and am a firm believer that the financial burden of tertiary education should be shared among the government, university and student. The question is - in what proportion?

According to policy set by education authorities, at present, an individual student should take on only a quarter of the cost of his or her university education, estimated at 12,000 yuan (US$1,450) a year. Based on this standard, almost all top universities in China are overcharging their students. Yet to people's dismay, these universities are still bent on charging more fees, while education authorities sit by idly not doing anything substantial to check this unhealthy trend.

Unreasonably high education charges bring more harm than good to society, especially in China, which is undergoing tremendous social and economic changes.

The rich-poor divide is ever widening, and a deep sense of abandonment grows among the so-called disadvantaged - factory layoffs, farmers and migrant workers. Raising the threshold for their sons' and daughters' education - a right highly valued in Chinese tradition - will only deepen that sense of injustice, and sow seeds of social disharmony and instability. It also runs against the repeated call by our State leaders for building a people-oriented, harmonious society.

The study of social mobility shows that the more mobile a society is, the more open, fair and stable it becomes. Yet runaway increases in tuition fees have dented our society's mobility. They have narrowed the already limited ways out for those who want to rise from rags to riches through university education, which has always been considered a steppingstone to a successful career.

In the late 1980s, 70 per cent of college students came from the countryside. At present, that number has shrunk to around 30 per cent. Is this what advocates of higher fees call expanded education opportunities?

Japan is currently the world's most expensive country in terms of education cost. A student there spends about US$16,000 on average for his or her tertiary education each year, or half of the country's per capita gross domestic product. Yet in China that ratio is three times as high, according to an article on the website of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Education together with housing and medical costs, have become "three mountains" weighing on the shoulders of Chinese people.

It is high time that education authorities and universities put a lid on skyrocketing college fees.

On the part of government, it should increase its investment in education instead of cutting it. The current input into education, which accounts for only 3.28 per cent of the country's GDP, a rate lower than many developing countries , means there is still large room for improvement. China, as the world's fastest growing economy, must not be stingy in investing in its future.

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