The new man at the top in Beijing is poised to bring in widespread education reforms. Katherine Forestier reports
Hopes are running high that China'snew governmentwill usher in an eraof education. Prime ministerZhu Rongji - hailed as a "moderniser" by Tony Blair during his visit to Britain and Europe earlier this month - is determined to reform his country and has put education among his top priorities.
Zhu, who succeeded Li Peng in March, underlined his intentions by announcing the formation of a top-level working group on education and science, which he will head. The Central Leading Group on Science and Education Work will comprise 30 educationists from top universities inBeijing and officials from the provinces. It will look at how institutions, curricula and facilities can be improved to meetsociety's needs.
In 1985, China had planned that by 2000 education would account for 4 per cent of its gross domestic product. But lack of money has resulted in it falling well short of that target, at 2 per cent today.
Zhu told the National People's Congress last month that money had been squandered on unnecessary construction projects and bureaucracy, which he promised to streamline to find extra funds for education. He said half the country's civil servants would be laid off in the next five years.
Zhang Lu, deputy director of Guangdong province's education department, said: "I am sure this is the beginning of a new chapter. Mr Zhu is relying on education and science to develop the country. Leading members of the state education ministry will pay more attention to reform, especially of the curriculum."
A new education minister was also selected during the congress. Chen Zhili, a reformist known to have close political ties with President Jiang Zemin and Zhu, received the votes of the vast majority of the 2,907 delegates. But the 199 votes against her and 76 abstentions is still regarded as significant opposition from communist ideologues.
"She was opposed not because delegates feared she was not fit for the post, but they feared her education reform momentum might be too strong and might threaten their interests," said Liu Xiao, president of the Changsha Civil Administration College.
Chen is a former science professor. "She is knowledgeable about modern education philosophy," said Liu.
Professor Leslie Lo, a Hong Kong educationist and guest professor at 12 Chinese universities, said: "Because of Ms Chen's Shanghai connections and being a reformist she is expected to reach to the core of power and present education's case."
Until the early 1990s there was just one curriculum and one set of textbooks to be used throughout the country. Now there is greater flexibility, with different curricula used in rural areas and developed cities and more flexible funding. Even private schools are encouraged, to relieve the state of the funding burden.
But increasing competition for places in the best schools and tertiary institutions has meant there is little flexibility in the classroom. Students are under intense pressure to cram for exams, according to secondary teacher Cheng Ling and her students.
For entry into university, they must pass exams in Chinese, maths and English, as well as two science papers or history and geography.
Streaming at lower levels also adds to the stress. Students are streamed to vocational or academic schools after completing nine years of compulsory education. The latter account for around 40 per cent of those continuing in education. "But the vocational schools are stigmitised as third-rate schools," said Professor Lo. "Whoever becomes education minister will have to grapple with this problem."
There were also immense structural problems to deal with, he said. Schools are responsible for staff welfare, including their pensions and their housing and medical expenses during employment and retirement.
Much of any increased spending on education would be diverted to supporting an ageing teacher population.
Teachers' salaries remain meagre and, according to Chen, even in a developed city like Guangzhou they are not enough to live on. Most of her colleagues at one of the city's top schools moonlight to make ends meet.
In poor rural areas the situation is far worse. Professor Lo said that in such communities teachers would be paid by being given a small piece of land to farm.
In the past decade China's major achievement in education has been introducing nine-year compulsory schooling. The new government faces the next challenge of improving its quality.