Bid to end burden of test-heavy culture;International;Interview;Chen Zhilli

30th July 1999 at 01:00

The education minister tells Chris Johnston about her plans to expand universities

The number of university places is set to rise by 40 per cent in a bid to reform China's exam-focused education system.

Madam Chen Zhili, the Chinese minister for education, revealed the plan in an exclusive interview with The TES. She was in the UK on a British Council-sponsored visit to study aspects of the education system here.

She said the number of places available in senior secondary schools and universities was small, which had resulted in intense competition and studying simply to pass exams. Only three million of China's 200 million school students were able to continue studying after finishing compulsory schooling.

"Our aim is to liberate students from the constant cycle of test and the 'fact feeding' teaching methodology to improve their creative and innovative abilities," Madam Chen said.

The expansion will begin in September. About half of the new places will be in tertiary vocational education.

The minister, who has held the portfolio for just over a year, said the government regarded education as its top priority, and added that spending on the sector would rise by 1 per cent each year for the next five years.

The government had pledged to increase education spending from the present 2.5 per cent to 4 per cent of gross domestic product by the end of next year.

However, Chen admitted that the planned rises would still not reach this target but was "a step towards achieving this goal".

The decision to boost spending was made at China's third national conference on education, held last month.

The government also signalled its intention to deepen the educational reform process and continue with its drive for "quality education". China hopes the changes will help students to think more for themselves.

The minister outlined initiatives to establish links between different types of institutions and make full use of information technology for lifelong and distance learning.

"We want to make our system more flexible and practical and suitable for the different needs of people," she said. But ultimately quality will be the number one issue.

She said that ensuring all teachers were competent was a big challenge and added that the teacher training system had difficulty providing high-quality training for all.

The quality drive will incorporate a massive programme to retrain teachers, particularly in information technology, and train headteachers in new forms of teaching methods and running schools.

The biggest challenge will be to overcome the disparity in economic prosperity between China's provinces: "It is very important that all the provinces take up the reform process in accordance with their own specific situation," she said.

Economic difficulties meant there had been cases of withholding teachers' salaries in some provinces, but the minister pledged the government would ensure that this did not happen again.

Pay rates were relatively low, she said, but over the past decade had risen from being at the bottom of the scale of all professions to the middle.

It is hoped a new five-year project to provide good-quality housing for teachers would help.

International 9

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