Education the basis of building a modern society
Editor's Note: The Chinese people have always attached great importance to education. In the 20th century, China has gone through a long, arduous journey from one-teacher schools to world-class universities and achieved excellence in different fields including science and technology. What will China's future education journey be like? In the second of a series of commentaries on education, a senior journalist with China Daily searches for the answers:
After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the new government made industrialization one of its main goals. But soon it realized that it will be almost impossible to achieve that goal with more than 80 percent of its population being illiterate. To make matters worse, the world's most populous country had only about 100,000 students studying in universities and about 1 million in high schools.
Realizing that such a situation would frustrate its efforts to transform the country into a modern society, the government started a decade-long national campaign to eliminate illiteracy. Tens of thousands of people were sent to all corners of the country to teach both children and adults the three Rs－reading, writing and arithmetic. Thousands of free night schools were opened, and workers and farmers, the old and the young, were encouraged to pick up books and pens. A survey in 1964 found that, thanks to more than a decade of rigorous efforts, China's illiteracy rate had reduced to 50 percent.
While their parents and grandparents were working hard to learn the three Rs, most school-age children were sent to schools to receive normal education. Although the national nine-year compulsory education was not introduced until 1986, children from poor families could seek exemption of school fees. By 2000, the nine-year compulsory education system was almost fully implemented with nearly 100 percent school-age children attending primary and junior high schools.
Today, China has about 160,000 primary schools with 100 million students and more than 50,000 middle schools attended by more than 48 million children.
Encouraged by its success in implementing the nine-year compulsory education system, the government has turned its attention to higher education. Some resource-rich regions have made senior high school education compulsory while the number of new enrollments in colleges has increased dramatically in the past decade or so. This year, for instance, more than 10 million students took the college entrance examination (or gaokao) with about 9 million enrolling in universities or vocational colleges.
The continuously improving education system and upgrading of higher education institutions have not only helped nurture top scientists and educators who have made China a leader in many fields, including science and technology, but also given rise to millions of well-educated workers who have turned the country into the world's biggest manufacturing base.
For a hundred years or so, leaders and visionaries have advocated that China make education the foundation of building a modern society and realize national rejuvenation. But given the overall condition of the country in past, including the high illiteracy rate, their proposal seemed mission impossible.
So it was not until 1995 when the illiteracy rate dropped to 5 percent that the central government, for the first time, officially announced that education, especially science education, is the foundation on which China will build a modern society. That decision further boosted the development of education. Today, nearly 50 percent of the country's youths in 18-22 age group are able to seek higher education in colleges and universities. Last year, there were as many as 33.1 million students in China's universities.
Yet the remarkable improvement in education and expansion of the education sector－there are about 270 million students in China's schools and colleges－have also encountered some problems. Some media reports say there is a shortage of qualified teachers in remote areas and the dropout rate during the nine-year compulsory education period has gone up. As for high school education, both students and teachers have become obsessed with exams while paying little or no attention to creativity, innovation or physical exercise. In case of university students, many are not working hard enough and the quality of some of them is far from satisfactory.
Indeed, the government has taken measures to deal with these problems. It has asked local education officials to ensure no child drops out at the nine-year education level, and increased the salaries of rural teachers, introduced compulsory sports and other physical activities in the school curriculum, and reduced homework for children. It has also initiated regulations to expel those students from the campus that cheat in exams.
To be sure, education will play an increasingly important role in the country's efforts to build a better future. President Xi Jinping has vowed to provide the people with high-quality education, an education that is high in morality, teaches students patriotism, makes them socially more conscious, and helps promote creativity and innovation.
Surely, we can expect much, much more from education.
The author is former deputy editor-in-chief of China Daily.