01/05/2009, 00.00
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Wen Jiabao pledges school reform to counter economic crisis

by Wang Zhicheng
Reform should include compulsory education for both rich and poor students, vocational schools to meet needs of industry, better salaries for teachers and excellence in college education to mitigate unemployment among graduates. But so far mainland China has only spent 3.3 per cent of its GDP on education, compared to other countries, even poorer ones, which have invested up to 6 per cent.
Beijing (AsiaNews) – Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has proposed reforming the country’s educational system to upgrade rural and vocational schools as well as raise teachers’ salaries so that the problems created by the global financial crisis can be better tackled.

The plan should span 2009 to 2020 and guarantee every child, rich and poor, nine years of compulsory education, develop educational facilities in rural areas and provide an education to the children of migrant workers.

Mr Wen made the proposal in a speech he delivered last August to the State Council but which was published only in today’s People’s Daily.

“Education will take a prominent position as we seek to mitigate the impact of the global financial crisis on our economy,” he said. “Education has become the cornerstone of national development.”

Outlining his vision, the premier listed eight areas where reforms are needed to ensure:

         equity in the provision of compulsory education;

         quality of rural education;

         promotion of vocational education;

         excellence in higher education;

         students learn how to learn on their own;

         educators, not officials, are responsible for managing schools;

         teachers are well trained; and

         resources are used effectively.

Education reform has been in the making for a long time, but except for lots of words nothing has been accomplished so far.

Teaching methods, which are based on instilling knowledge rather than developing a student’s thinking abilities, are among the most burning problems.

The number of teachers in rural areas is inadequate, as are their salaries and their often outdated facilities.

The shortcomings of the present system were plain to see in the Sichuan earthquake when poorly constructed schools collapsed.

Another problem is rural poverty. In the countryside families very often choose to send their children to work in the cities rather than get an education. Sources told AsiaNews that at least 80 per cent of children from peasant families leave school after one or two years. 

On top of all that the global financial crisis has made some matters worse and created new ones. After passing highly competitive college entrance exams and spending a fortune to finance their studies, many graduates end up not finding employment in an industrial sector increasingly affected by the recession.

The lack of skilled industrial workers in Guangdong and Shanghai is another problem that has been noticeable for some time.

Vocational schools could fill this need, retraining millions of migrant workers who, because of the crisis, are leaving for their home villages where the average annual income is around 2,000-2,500 yuan (about US$ 290-365).

The authorities’ failure to allocate enough funding to education remains the most serious problem.

Even though the mainland has had a law since 1995 stipulating that the sector must receive 4 per cent of GDP (many nations, including some that are less rich than China, have allocated up to six per cent), educational budgets have never approached even this level. In 2007, the figure was just 3.3 per cent.

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