Educational Diversity in China

Since 1995 the Chinese government has
repeatedly proclaimed its “strategy for national development through science and
education” (ke jiao xing guo)((1). How does this actually affect the field of
education? This article will give a brief overview of the kinds of education provided
to the Chinese population via those institutions which, to a greater or lesser
extent, fall within the purview of the Ministry of Education or the local education
authorities. It will not include apprenticeships or training provided independently
by some companies and services, usually intended for their own staff. But it will
pay attention to a wide range of teaching which, alongside the regular curriculum,
is concerned with basic and continuing education. This includes very diverse approaches,
from full time education to part time attendance, and from normal classroom teaching
to distance or other types of learning, wherever these are provided through institutions
whose main role is educational.

For the last twenty years, educational
policy in China has swung between several priorities, which could be summarised
under three main headings: the provision of universal basic education, an emphasis
on secondary schooling, and a prioritisation of higher education.

The first priority is aimed at remedying
the general level of under-development. The provision of universal basic education
consists in securing what the Chinese call “the two basics”. On the one hand it
is concerned with making nine years of education compulsory for all children of
school age, who should complete six years of primary and three years of junior
secondary education; on the other hand, the second “basic” aim is to eradicate
illiteracy in the 15 to 50 age group.

The second priority is concerned above
all with the problem of unemployment. It is focused on restructuring secondary
education, particularly in the upper forms, in order to emphasise vocational training
and to channel the majority of the pupils in that direction. The restructuring
of secondary education is complemented by a newly developed range of teaching
provision, relying on correspondence, television programmes, and short courses,
designed to equip those who have missed out on higher secondary education, whether
they are working or unemployed.

The third priority is a response to the
crucial role of scientific and technological progress within the sphere of international
competition. It calls for the expansion and reform of higher education.

These basic priorities are sometimes
modified by one or more variants imported from the other options.

The choice between the different priorities
is not exercised at the national level alone, but also at various levels of the
administrative apparatus. The result is a very contradictory picture. In fact,
it can happen that within a single province the direction of national resources
is predominantly influenced by the needs of basic education, while local resources
are mainly directed towards the universities.

But why are the administrative bodies
forced into relatively narrow priorities? This constraint is the outcome of a
basic budgetary policy which keeps the rate of state investment in education (national
and local) below the growth rates of GDP and budget expenditure. In China, educational
expenditure represents only 2.4% of GDP, which is lower than countries like India
or Korea. Moreover, even this expenditure is lower than the rate for 1989, when
it was 3.1% of GDP, despite the fact that an increase to 4% by 2000 had been promised((2).
To raise the level of funding, the state is resorting to increased family contributions,
and even to private financing of the institutions. In 1997, family and private
funding already provided 35% of educational costs((3). This share of the total
is continually increasing, but because of it, the social inequality of access
to different types and levels of education, determined by family income, is also

The adoption of one priority or another
by the Chinese central government, or other administrative organs, has been deliberately
concealed behind recommendations made by international experts, especially by
those from the World Bank. But such advice has often been prompted by the Chinese
themselves, for their own ends. In fact the information supporting the advice
from these experts has been essentially from Chinese sources, and the administrative
sectors have generally provided data that favour the political or other aims pursued
by their respective leaderships. In some areas, the local education authorities
have been keen to take over the control of secondary education exercised by the
ministries in charge of technology, and in order to do so they have vigorously
demonstrated, with figures to support them, that students graduating from ordinary
secondary schools have had less difficulty in finding work than their counterparts
from the technical schools. In this way, such authorities have been able to divert
the funds intended for vocational training towards the schools under their control,
in the name of the pedagogical virtue of universal benefit, as opposed to the
vagaries of specialisation for the talented few. Elsewhere, the deterioration
affecting the entire primary and secondary sector has been played down, while
the extremely low university intake has been emphasised, along with the dearth
of engineers and high level managers, so as to obtain levels of investment for
the universities considered to be of immediate benefit to the local economy.

Nonetheless, the considerable work over
the last twenty years to renew and expand education at every level, particularly
in terms of the efforts put in by teachers and administrators, has created the
present situation, with its markedly more diverse range of opportunities available
to a more numerous population than previously.

For greater clarity, I will examine these
opportunities in terms of levels rather than sector, and I will attempt to assess
the numbers of pupils and the quality of the education that they receive. The
figures cannot be taken as being rigorously exact, because the available statistics
lack coherence and are often contradictory. But at least a more precise description
can be given of the functions of the different technical schools, whose official
names are no more unified in practice than in the published statistics, all of
which adds its own measure of confusion to the overall data.

General basic education

The education system provides a universal
training in basic skills through compulsory schooling. In principle this prescribes
nine years’ attendance. For most children this has to be paid for. The charges
vary between tens and thousands of yuan per year. In average town schools, they
amount to about 75 yuan per month.

The syllabus includes reading, writing,
basic maths, science, history, geography, civics, physical education, music, and
drawing. In some schools in the major cities, foreign languages are taught as
early as the primary level. In a section of urban schools in prosperous regions,
such teaching is fairly widespread from the junior secondary level. Use of computers
follows the same pattern. In rural areas, and occasionally in towns, some schools
introduce pupils to agricultural or industrial processes at the junior secondary
level. This so-called “vocational” (zhiye) training is to be consolidated in the
rural schools, which will serve as centres for disseminating technological skills((4).

Since 1997, the official figure for primary
school attendance was 98.9%, and it is reported to have reached 99.09% at the
beginning of the 1999 school year((5). This gives a yearly figure of 190,000 children
who do not attend. In 1999, the drop-out rate from primary school was 0.9% of
the total enrolment((6). Thus there is an annual increase of at least 1,500,000
illiterate children.

At the beginning of the 1999 school year,
88.6% of children who had completed primary school entered the junior secondary
level((7). In the same year, the total enrolment at this level amounted to 87.3%((8).
The drop-out rate shows a constant increase, reaching 3.28% for 1999((9). So we
can reckon that for the last two or three years, 80% of school pupils reaching
their fifteenth year have been provided with a complete compulsory education.
Nonetheless, in rural and impoverished areas, it is more often a question of eight
years, rather than the legally required nine.

Moreover, the progress achieved so far
is far from being firmly established. It is quite likely that the official school
statistics, which are based on the numbers of the population legally registered
locally, leave out the enrolment rates for children without official local status—such
as undeclared births, particularly of girls, to bypass the single-child family
law, or the children of migrant workers. The rather low official figures for children
who do not enter the school system, or who leave it prematurely, conceal wide
variations and even a reduction in enrolment, affecting particular regions or
social groups.

According to the statistics, the difference
between enrolment rates for boys and girls has diminished and is tending to disappear
(99.1% for boys, and 99% for girls at the primary school entrance level). The
percentage of girls completing five years’ primary schooling (92.62%) is even
slightly higher than the overall average (92.48%)((10). This advance may be less
spectacular in reality, but the trend is undeniable.

Of greater concern to the authorities
is the situation in 190 sub-prefectures (xian), that is in 6.6% of all such administrative
areas, where more than 22 million people live. There, the enrolment rate at the
primary level is below 70%, and even dips to nearly 50% in the Tibetan sub-prefectures.
The drop-out rate during primary school is over 10%, and 18% in the Tibetan areas((11).
The latter are in mountainous regions, where pastoral practices are still important,
and they are also mostly in frontier regions or areas populated by national minorities.
The overall school enrolment rate among the national minority populations remains
lower than among the Han Chinese.

A setback in school enrolments affects
certain groups in the rural population, such as the families of men who have come
to find work in the towns and are subsequently joined by them, or those of young
migrants who have started the family in a town. Whether those parents possess
a temporary residence permit or not, local schools frequently refuse to admit
their children, or else they charge a high price for their admission, thus forcing
their withdrawal whenever there is a spell of unemployment. In the suburbs of
the larger cities, ad hoc solutions are sometimes found: for example, the families
contribute together to hire a teacher, or even to open a school. At present there
is no way of calculating the number of children totally or partially deprived
of an education in this way. Educationalists in Shanghai and Peking have testified
that several million children in urban areas must be considered to be in this
situation. Another urban phenomenon is unemployment and the dismissals which are
now hitting between 17 and 23 million workers on average in the towns((12). These
events disrupt school attendance, or make it impossible for parents to get their
children enrolled if they have insufficient financial means. However the educational
loss brought on by this situation seems less serious than that facing the children
of migrant workers. In the former case, the very fact that residents are involved
means that the local authorities usually ensure support for at least their children’s
primary education. The social cost is mostly early quitting of the school-system
without any qualifications.

In 1998, the overall illiteracy rate
for the population under the age of 15 was 14.5%((13). In the 15 to 50 age group
it went down to 5% in 1999, but the education level of the generations within
this group was still very uneven((14). Moreover, the means available for the fight
against illiteracy, which in the early 1990s had made enough progress to begin
to reduce the overall number of illiterates, are now insufficient to deal with
the new annual increases. In 1998, 3.2 million adults were taught to read and
write, but in the same year there were at least 6.5 million new illiterates aged
under 15, i.e. there was a net increase of 3 million per year((15). All the indicators
suggest that since then this rise in illiteracy has been continuing, and even
increasing, and that it is now affecting the towns as much as the countryside.

The general quality of basic teaching
has greatly improved, thanks to an enormous methodical and ongoing programme of
training and refresher courses for the teaching body. At present, 95.9% of teachers,
and 85.5% of those teaching at the junior secondary level, have achieved the prescribed
qualifications((16). But the situation is precarious, because from now until 2002
demographic expansion is going to increase the numbers in the junior secondary
level by one third. The overall number requiring education at this level was 61
million in 1998, and it will reach 79 million in 2002.

Provision of education at the secondary

The present situation at the junior secondary
level in China is very similar to that in France prior to the Carcopino reforms
of 1941, when the upper primary schools, the technical schools, and the junior
levels of the lycées existed side by side.

Like our former upper primary schools,
some of the Chinese junior secondary schools in the countryside and certain urban
areas offer some technical courses leading to vocational employment. They are
designated “vocational schools” (zhiye xuexiao). Other schools limit themselves
to a general education, whose purpose is to build on the knowledge already acquired,
or to prepare pupils for entry to the higher secondary level.

Side by side with these ordinary and
vocational schools are the technical schools (jigong xuexiao and jishu xuexiao)—corresponding
either to the junior or to the higher secondary levels, or else to an intermediate
level—in which the teaching combines theoretical education with practical workshop
training. In 1998, a quarter of these technical schools were under the ministries
concerned with technology, and the remainder were under the provincial and municipal
authorities. Their numbers and their staff have tended to decrease over the last
eight years. At present they cater to 1,813,000 pupils, of which a fifth attend
for only two years((17).

The rate of decline of these junior technical
schools varies according to specialisation and area. In general it seems more
marked in the most developed provinces, and it affects industrial specialisations
rather than agricultural ones((18). This is explained partly by the costs of administering
such an education, and partly by the disappointing outcome, from the point of
view of the final qualifications that it provides in the face of the current demands
of the labour market. Hence it is also affected by a decreasing demand from families,
who prefer a less onerous course for their children, and one that offers more
possibilities for future advancement.

It is likely that as a direct effect
of demographic expansion, which in the next two years will add a further 18 million
to the enrolment at the junior secondary level((19), general education will continue
to massively outweigh the provision of vocational training in this sector of schooling.

The main problem here will be to ensure
adequate standards, and even raise them. In this regard, for the last eight years
the teaching profession has been urged to focus its attention on the balanced
development of the pupils’ capabilities, rather than on the transmission of bookish
knowledge aimed at success in the examinations. Educational journals are filled
with discussions of to “learn how to learn”((20). But with class sizes of between
45 and 60 pupils, and teachers whose salaries are still in many places only paid
irregularly, the revolution in teaching is necessarily slow, even if in Shanghai
and Jiangsu it is already a spectacular reality.

But the weakest link in the educational
system is probably at the next level, the upper secondary forms. At this level
there are two streams. The first is via the general high school (putong gaoji
zhongxue), which leads on to the competitive university entrance exams; and the
second is via the vocational high school (zhongdeng zhiye xuexiao), or the specialised
high school (zhongdeng zhuanye xuexiao), comprised of the normal secondary schools
and the technical high schools.

In 1998, out of the 16 million completing
their junior secondary school, half continued into the upper forms. Out of these
8 million, half enrolled in the vocational and technical schools((21). This proportion
fell below the goal set 15 years earlier, which was to direct 60% or 70% towards
vocational and technical education((22). Moreover, even the present rate of 50%
is partly illusory. In 1998 only 20% of pupils entered specialised schools properly
speaking, meaning schools really capable of giving a technical education, with
modern equipment and trained staff. 30% were admitted to so-called “vocational”
establishments, whose quality was much more a matter of chance, some being managed
in an effective and innovative way with the support of local enterprises, and
others being “vocational” in name only, and lacking resources((23). Surveys have
shown that in the case of half of these “vocational” schools more than two-thirds
of their students are unable to find work on graduation((24). So it is not surprising
that in 1999 the enrolment in these vocational and specialised schools fell by
400,000, and that in country areas less than 60% of eligible pupils sought admission
to them. A steeper decline is expected for the beginning of the academic year

The primary reason for such a reluctance
to enter the vocational and technical schools is the high cost in comparison with
the fees charged by the ordinary schools. An additional factor is that this option
does not allow the pursuit of further studies within a regular syllabus (benke)
and therefore precludes entrance to the most prestigious universities. It only
allows students to compete for entry to certain specialised curricula (zhuanke),
which are mostly offered by a specialised higher college (gaodeng zhuanye xuexiao)
whose graduates can expect much more limited job prospects and remuneration.

At present, a very small proportion of
graduates from the vocational and technical high schools manage to enter higher
education. In Anhui province in 1999, despite all the circulars instructing that
such a move be made easier, only 2.5% of the 67,610 graduates from the vocational
and technical schools were admitted into higher education((26). Furthermore, graduates
from the technical stream who leave school on completion of the secondary level
are not better placed to find employment than their counterparts from the regular
schools in the same situation((27).

About one-third of the training options
provided by the technical schools (zhongdeng zhuanye xuexiao) are in industrial
skills, 12% in agriculture and forestry, 17% in the healthcare professions, 18%
in management and accountancy, and 5% in the judicial and administrative professions.
The remainder are in sports and the various arts((28). Likewise, the technical
schools (jigong xuexiao) and the vocational schools (zhiye xuexiao) offer special
courses in agriculture and industrial processes, in addition to paramedical training,
but they also provide training in tertiary sector occupations, such as commerce,
tourism and the services((29). In the large towns, the quality and type of education
are often of the same standard in the three different categories of school. The
differences between them are administrative in nature, since the secondary and
technical schools are linked to industry or agriculture departments, whereas the
vocational schools come under the educational departments. By contrast, in the
medium-sized towns and rural areas, the standard of the vocational schools is
usually far inferior to that of the two other categories.

The quality of the general education
in the upper forms has seen considerable improvement over the last 15 years. Shanghai,
which is a leader in this field as in so many others, has put into effect a renewal
of syllabi, teaching methods, and equipment, which ranks its schools among the
best in the world. But elsewhere, there are still large gaps, as illustrated by
the following figures. In the general secondary schools in the large cities, the
average success rate for students competing for university entrance is 60%, whereas
in the main towns of the sub-prefectures or below, the rate is 30%((30).

To overcome the blockages and malfunction
caused by the division of upper secondary schools into two streams, and the consequent
constraints upon students’ subsequent careers, the 1998 report of the World Bank
recommended to the Chinese government the straightforward abolition of this distinction.
It called for a single system of general education, but with provisions for greater
syllabus flexibility and a wider choice of options which would include introductory
vocational programmes.

This proposal was rejected by the Chinese
authorities and, to a large extent, by the teaching profession. It is considered
unsuitable for the current situation in China, because it would end up by reducing
the number of pupils graduating from the junior high school into the higher forms,
whereas this group, which is still too small at 50% of the total, is only able
to proceed at present because half of the students are inducted into the vocational
stream. The suppression of the vocational schools would also dry up the stream
of technicians being trained at the elementary level, but these are absolutely
indispensable at the present stage of development, particularly in view of the
need to increase agricultural yields. And finally, increasing the number of general
high schools would not increase the chances for rural youth to obtain higher education,
as is shown by the present gap between the success rate in the large towns and

Secondary vocational and technical training
took third place among the priorities set out in 1999, but a series of important
measures have been set up to remedy this deficiency.

After promulgating a law covering vocational
education, a series of measures were adopted to transfer decision-making powers
to the local administrations, along with financial responsibility for managing
the technical schools, so that the training, recruitment, and placing of graduates
should be really integrated into local development policies. This transfer of
power was accompanied by a whole range of legal requirements, concerning the use
of the material resources and the status of the academic staff. Following the
circulation of these instructions in February 2000, at most only a hundred out
of the 20,000 secondary technical schools will remain under the control of the
central government. These are the technical schools for the railways, the oil
industry, and certain police forces((32).

There is an increasing trend towards
setting up a specific training programme for teachers intending to enter the vocational
sector, and to establish and increase the number of feeder streams from the secondary
vocational and technical schools into higher education. But, as those in charge
of education at the highest levels insist, any successful and widespread application
of such initiatives depends on setting up a permanent system of inspection and
assessment, which does not yet exist for this branch of education((33).

Adult secondary education

At the secondary level, a fair proportion
of training is taken up by adult education. Here the statistics give the impression
of spectacular development. In 1998 the enrolment figures amounted to 77 million,
nearly three times higher than for regular education((34). But a closer look reveals
that nearly 75 million of these students are enrolled in short courses lasting
about a year, usually on a part-time basis or concentrated into a few months.
These are technical sandwich courses (jishu peixun) aimed at 70 million peasants
and 5 million salaried staff or workers. The documents and reports show that the
participants are mostly young people between 15 and 25, who take these courses
immediately after graduation from the junior high school, in order to supplement
their education because they have not been admitted to the upper forms.

Only about 700,000 students are engaged
in catching up on their lost years of secondary school education. Roughly half
of these are urban dwellers, and half are rural.

That leaves a little over a million adults
enrolled in so-called “specialised” (zhuanye) three-year courses, corresponding
to the upper forms of the high school. A third of these students follow such courses
through distance learning, by radio, television, correspondence, and recently
even the Internet, whereas the majority attend ordinary schools or special institutes
on a part-time basis. The latter is the norm for refresher courses for teachers,
who represent a tenth of all adults undergoing “specialised” education. For the
rest, the subject areas available, and the standards to be achieved, are roughly
the same as those provided by the specialised secondary schools.

Official figures show that this sector
has fallen far short of its stated objectives. An Education Committee circular
of April 1994 projected a total of 6 million students in “specialised” adult education
colleges by the year 2000((35). This target corresponded to the yearly figure
for young people not admitted to the normal upper secondary level. In fact, the
numbers enrolled in “specialised” adult education remained the same. The probable
factors behind such stagnation are the same as for the specialised secondary schools,
namely running costs and lack of staff. The more fundamental reasons are that,
hitherto, secondary education has not been at the forefront in the overall priorities,
and that, even within adult secondary education, resources have been concentrated
on short courses, providing a basic and relatively focused vocational qualification
to large numbers of labourers either out of work or threatened with imminent job
losses. The pressing social problem has won out over longer term strategies. This
tendency seems unlikely to change significantly in the near future((36).

Provision within
higher education

After the provision of basic education,
higher education is clearly the second priority at every level of the administration.
It often even tends to be the main priority in government circles, in which it
is supported by the opinion of a large number of middle and lower income families.

The two types of curriculum

Regular higher education offers two types
of curriculum, one “main” (benke) one which usually lasts four years (rising to
six or seven in medicine, and five in physics), and a short or “special” (zhuanke)
one, lasting only two or three years. This distinction is not dependent on the
discipline. Law, economics, literature, accountancy, medicine, electronics, and
the sciences, all offer “main” and “special” syllabi. Nor does it entirely correspond
to the differences between the categories of the institutions concerned. However,
it is true that the most prestigious universities, like Peking University and
Qinghua, only offer “main” curricula, while most of the lesser “institutes” (xueyuan),
the higher special schools (gaodeng zhuanke xuexiao), and even numerous “universities”
(daxue) only provide the short ones. The distinction lies mainly in the fact that
the “special” syllabus is in principle oriented towards the practical applications
of a discipline and includes less general learning and basic knowledge. It provides
a narrower and more goal-oriented training. The final diploma does not usually
qualify the graduate for further study leading to a Master’s degree, and then
on to a doctorate, nor does it entitle him or her to apply for a scholarship to
study abroad.

The selection and distribution of students

Admission into regular higher education
takes place through competition at the national level, the modalities for which
are constantly changing. The latest arrangements were tried out in Guangdong province
in 1999, in four other provinces in 2000, and will be extended to a further ten
provinces including Peking this year, finally becoming the national norm in 2002.
They consist of a common entrance examination in the three disciplines of Chinese,
mathematics, and foreign languages, plus one or two extra ones, depending on the
particular university or discipline to which the candidate is seeking admission((37).

The number of places open to competitive
entry shows a marked increase. In 1998, there were 1,083,600. In 1999, the figure
reached 1,600,000, and was due to reach 1,800,000 in the year 2000((38). The current
number represents 10% of the age group and about a 40% success rate among the
graduates from the general and vocational high schools((39). The Ministry of Education
estimates that by 2010, 15% of the eligible age group will enter higher education.
It is worth recalling that in 1994 this proportion was only 2.4%, just as it was
in 1960. Against certain currents of public opinion, the authorities are at present
refusing to entertain the idea of a large-scale and overhasty expansion, pointing
out that it would actually cause more frustrated ambitions and social problems
than it would remedy((40).

In 1998, two-thirds of students undergoing
education followed a long curriculum, and one-third a short one. But since then,
the proportion of students studying a short syllabus has increased. In fact, it
is by increasing the available places in such programmes that it has been possible
to widen overall access to higher education. In order to offer the prospects of
advanced education, particularly to students graduating from the vocational secondary
schools, the provincial governments and various other bodies have set up vocational
technical institutes (zhiye jishu xueyuan), which are sometimes adjuncts of existing
higher or secondary education institutions, and sometimes independent. The creation
of similar private institutions is actively encouraged, and there are several
in Shanghai. Their modes of operation can be very varied, but the Ministry of
Education has recently reaffirmed its right to oversee their teaching standards((41).

These establishments offer two-year courses,
rather like the Instituts Universitaires Techniques (Technical Colleges) in France.
They are intended to operate on the pattern of US community colleges, being integrated
into the local situation and set up to service its needs. At the end of 1998,
there were 432 institutes offering short-syllabus courses and vocational technical
training, out of a total of 1,022 regular higher education establishments.

The programmes

Over the last 15 years there has been
a complete upheaval in the university system. The changes were formalised by the
law on higher education promulgated on August 29th 1998, and this was followed
by several later pieces of legislation. The universities have been granted a large
measure of autonomy. One consequence is that they make decisions on student enrolment
in the light of their own goals and means, and they distribute their intake between
departments and sections as they see fit.

In fact, the universities are ranked
in a hierarchy which allows them to pick their recruits from within a broader
or narrower band of the grades achieved in the entrance examinations. Through
this system, until now the technical vocational institutes and the special advanced
colleges have mainly enrolled graduates from the ordinary high schools, whose
programme prepares them directly for the competitive examinations, to the disadvantage
of the graduates from the specialised and the vocational secondary schools, who
were the intended beneficiaries of this channel for advancement.

Autonomy in matters pertaining to teaching
has allowed the universities to develop their own specialisations and new programmes,
and, particularly in the sciences, to set up basic multi-disciplinary teaching
programmes permitting firmer grounding and greater creativity later within the
selected specialisation. But the procedures for establishing a new integrated
syllabus are still ponderous, and it has to be endorsed by the Ministry of Education.
The latter intends to reduce the number of recognised specialisations (zhuanye),
which number 200 at present, and to broaden the range of each one, allowing it
a greater flexibility of interpretation((42). A national register showing the
geographical distribution of the specialisations is also being prepared, to permit
them to be more accurately assessed. It must also be emphasised that the implementation
of the new staff management policies, as required by the teaching reforms, has
raised a number of human and logistical problems, and continues to do so.

The idea of the reforms was that, in
concert with the local authorities who would henceforth shoulder the financial
costs and assume administrative control, the universities would increase the number
of new and “profitable” specialisations to attract the best students. But the
change has occurred in a far from smooth and rational manner. Many institutions
offer cheap courses with alluring titles, and there is a hunt for immediate returns.
The brightest students in mathematics are abandoning science and technology, in
favour of the more lucrative specialisations of finance or international commerce.
The disparities between institutions and educational programmes are tending to
widen rather than diminish. And the general suppression of free education at the
university level since 1996 appears to be reinforcing this trend.

There are about a hundred very good universities
belonging to what is called the “211 programme”((43). They receive large financial
support from the central and local governments. Their business is cutting-edge
scientific research, and they are entrusted with training the elite. But even
in these establishments, not all departments achieve the same level. The other
900 higher educational establishments present a broad spectrum, in which the solidly
respectable rub shoulders with the downright mediocre.

The figures for the distribution of students
between the specialisations in the current academic year are not yet available,
but according to those for the end of 1998, 41% were enrolled in engineering,
16% in economics, 12% in the sciences, 4.8% in law, 5% in teacher training, 7.5%
in medicine, 16% in literature, and 3.8% in agronomy. All these specialisations
are growing at roughly the same rate. Only philosophy and history are in decline,
by 0.1% and 1.6% respectively.

It is difficult to assess the influence
of the costs on student choice. In principle, fees amount to between 1,000 and
2,600 yuan in the arts and the sciences. The costs are double in the vocational
courses, and the authorities consider this to be one of the reasons why they remain
closed to graduates from the vocational schools in the rural areas((44).

Research training

On completion of the main curriculum,
students can go on to prepare for a Master’s degree (shuoshi), which is obtained
after two or three years, on presentation of a research paper, and then for a
doctorate, which requires three or four years and the submission of a thesis.
Such programmes exist in 405 universities, for certain subjects only, and in 328
research organisations. The authorisation to set up a doctoral programme is subject
to rigorous ministerial control. The students have the benefit of close supervision
by their professor. But the results, as in other countries, are very uneven. The
candidates are accepted after an examination. In 1998, there were 72,500 enrolled
for a Master’s degree, which decreased slightly in 1999; for 2000 an enrolment
figure of 120,000 was expected((45). Nine thousand doctorates are conferred each
year. Since 1985 supporting centres equipped with laboratories have been set up
for post-doctoral research. By the end of 1997, there were 450 of them, covering
10 major disciplines and 55 specialisations, distributed throughout 36 towns,
and catering to 7,100 post-doctoral researchers. These arrangements are intended
to alleviate the brain drain overseas and have been continuously expanded((46).

Higher adult education

For a long time now, the limits on the
availability of higher education have led to the development of a large and diversified
field of adult education. Current policy is to continue to encourage this sector,
along with the expansion of the universities, and even to extend it so that it
becomes permanently established. To achieve this, the structure of higher adult
education will have to undergo modification, in order to give priority to education
in the work place conducted in collaboration with the universities, instead of
expanding the institutions of the academic type that receive students on work

In 1998, this sector consisted of 962
establishments, out of which 45 operated through radio or television, and 4 through
correspondence courses. 567 dealt with the education of salaried staff and workers,
3 with training peasants, 153 with managerial staff, and 190 with teachers and
secondary school heads. Enrolment amounted to 1,001,400 students, out of whom
113,200 were doing a “main” syllabus and 888,200 a short one.

Like secondary adult education, higher
adult education is only marginally performing the role of substitute for regular
education (this is the case for only 10% of the enrolment). Its main role is to
provide complementary training in a precisely defined area to people already employed
in that area, or to those in the process of switching to another one. The length
of study is usually between two to three years, and only occasionally four, but
there are also shorter and more concentrated programmes. The universities have
a large stake in these operations, which represent a major source of income for
them. At present, they accept over half of all the adults in higher education,
to whom they offer a very wide range of options. In fact, in most cases adult
education is provided on a contractual basis, with the factory or administrative
body sending its personnel to attend the courses, whether on a voluntary or a
compulsory basis. Self-motivated individual enrolments are rarer, and they are
often obstructed by the fact that there are no means for certifying vocational
qualifications. In 1998, 109,000 “self-educated” people passed the university
examinations. Subsequently, a few of them were admitted to prepare for a doctorate.

Information technology, to which the
authorities have become zealous converts along with the rest of the population,
is expanding greatly and improving the potentialities of adult higher education.
These will most probably be increasingly exploited, in order to make up for the
insufficiencies in the provision of university education, both for the young population
in the rural areas and for the general training of technical staff in the most
impoverished of the western provinces, to which efforts are currently being devoted((47).


TO sum up the current opportunities provided
by the education system in China, it should be said that, in general, there has
been dynamic progress, but accompanied by large geographical disparities both
at the academic and the social level.

The struggle for basic education is not
over. In many regions its achievements have only been possible through the supportive
action of the state, and particularly of the central state government. In the
towns, where the struggle was thought to have been won, the illiteracy linked
to poverty is regaining ground. The fight must be taken up again there, and this
obviously reduces the availability of resources for other tasks.

There is a temptation to enrol secondary
school students for as long as possible, and at any price, in order to conceal
or relieve the pressure of youth unemployment. Following an imprudent circular
from the Ministry of Education in 1999, many regions yielded to this temptation
and unrestrainedly increased attendance at the ordinary secondary schools((48).
But the high rate of failures and drop-outs makes it clear that the secondary
school stage is the weakest and most vulnerable link in the whole system. Although
there have been spectacular local successes, it seems that overall improvement
in standards will require a long time yet. Access to better education is still
restricted to the children of families able to pay for it.

If the failure and drop-out rate is a
reliable measure of efficiency, university education would appear to be excellent
because the rate is very low, but this is thanks to selection, to the close tutoring
of students, and to the high cost of study. A more pertinent criterion would be
the rate of employment upon graduation. For the last ten years, the graduates
themselves have been looking for jobs, since the state no longer allocates them
to a position at the end of their higher education. They do manage to find jobs,
and actual unemployment seems to be low, but nowadays a number complain of being
constrained to accept a lower grade of work or a poor salary with little prospects
for promotion.

The quality of university education often
suffers from insufficient contact with the research side. Here it is not so much
a question of a lack of means or equipment, as a failure to conceive of the university
as a creator of knowledge. This is not surprising in view of the fact that under
10% of the teaching staff in 37.8% of all Chinese universities hold a Master’s
degree, and that under 2% of the professors in 76.12% of the universities have
a doctorate. The recent increase in university salaries will perhaps restore the
profession’s attraction in the eyes of talented students, who for the last twenty
years have been refusing to become university teachers.

There is also a technical obstruction
to getting the differences in educational levels recognised within the labour
market. There is no set of accepted standards for the various certificates. They
are certainly unified in a formal respect, but what is lacking is a system of
accreditation which could guarantee real substance.

However, the rising competition within
the university sector, along with the scrutiny of local authorities and the pressure
of strong social demand, all combine to suggest that here too the ongoing development
will continue apace.


from the French original by Jonathan Hall

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