China has attracted global attention in recent times for itsinspiring and staggering achievements in the economic arena. Theimpeccably organized Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the prospects ofthe biggest expo in history in Shanghai this year have fired thepublic imagination and worked wonders for national pride.
Yet, a quiet revolution that hasunderpinned many of these achievements has gone relativelyunnoticed. This is the transformation of China from a largelyilliterate country in 1949, when the People’s Republic wasestablished, to a country where almost all children attend schoolfor nine years and the literacy rate of young people aged 15 to 24is 99 percent.
These historic achievements have contributed to China’s rankingin the Human Development Index (HDI) rising to 92nd out of 180countries. This speaks volumes for the vision and determination ofthe Chinese leadership. Nevertheless, China faces challenges inaddressing disparity and quality in education. Viewed in thiscontext, China’s Medium and Long-Term Education Reform andDevelopment Plan Outline is a timely response to the challenges ofcreating a knowledge-based society. The outline was released to thepublic in February after intensive consultations.
Premier Wen Jiabao demonstrated firm commitment of the Chineseleadership to education reform by convening five separate sessionsto engage in a dialogue with people from different parts of thecountry. This is by no means an ordinary occurrence, as the UNbelieves and has repeatedly emphasized the critical importance ofpolitical commitment for the achievement of the Education forAll and Millennium Development Goals.
The process of consultation continues as millions of people usethe power of the Internet to send in their comments on the outline.It is evident that the Chinese people are eager to contribute andparticipate in the reform of the educationsystem. The Chinese government deserves to becommended for developing a comprehensive outline that setsstrategic goals and targets for education development in the next10 years.
The outline stresses the right of all citizens to receiveeducation and promises allocation of resources in favor of rural,impoverished, ethnic and vulnerable groups. It emphasizes theimportance of all round development of the personality of learners.Incentives are provided for greater participation of thenon-government sector in education.
With a view to installing a standard and scientific evaluationsystem, there is a welcome willingness to cooperate with “firstclass international education assessment agencies”. Agreements onmutual recognition of academic degrees will be concluded with morecountries and regions. In the spirit of reciprocity internationalaid to education shall be enhanced to develop human resources inother developing countries.
One might ask the question: “So what ismissing?” A group of UN agencies and internationalorganizations based in Beijing undertook a review of the outline inresponse to an invitation from the Ministry of Education. While ouroverall response is positive we raised four major concerns.
Thefirst relates to the feasibility ofachieving the ambitious goals set out by the outline withoutraising the level of investment on education as a proportion ofGDP. The goal of 4 percent proposed in the Education Reform andDevelopment Plan Outline of 1993 is retained. This may beunderstandable as current educational investment is yet to reachthat level. Nevertheless, this is still below the internationallyrecommended norm of 6 percent of GNP. Quality gaps and fundingdisparities between regions are severe.
According to the 2010 EFA Global Monitoring Report, per studentexpenditure on junior middle schools is 18 times higher in Beijingand Shanghai than in the poorest provinces. Can these disparitiesbe addressed without raising the level of funding in educationsignificantly?
Second, in keeping with China’sresolve to develop an internationally competitive education systemto match its status as the third-largest economy and to meet therising aspirations and expectations of the people, there is astrong case for extending the duration of free and compulsoryeducation from nine to 12 years in line with industrializednations.
Third, while China’s contribution tothe reduction of global illiteracy has been significant, it stillhas 71 million illiterates in the age group of 15 and above, ofwhich more than two thirds are women. Illiteracy persists amongethnic minorities and rural populations. While the outline alludesto various programs to expand opportunities for continuingeducation and lifelong learning, there is no firm commitment toaddress the problem of residual and emerging illiteracy.
Fourth, perhaps the most glaringomission in the outline is the absence of any reference to genderin education. Although China has achieved gender parity in primaryeducation, gender equality remains a particular challenge.
It is necessary to articulate a strategy to improve girls’ andwomen’s participation, retention and achievement in education atall levels. Although women’s status has improved over the last 60years, there are serious challenges relating to the skewed sexratio at birth in favor of men, the prevalence of domestic violenceand abuse of women and discrimination at the work place. From abroader development perspective, it is necessary that education isseen as an instrument for the empowerment of women.
The Chinese government is expected to address these and otherconcerns raised during the process of consultation. These rangefrom improvement in the status, morale and professionalism ofteachers to the employment prospects of university graduates, theincreasing load of the school bag, rote learning and theexamination system.
China has the political commitment, resources and institutionalcapacity to implement its plans and programs. Based on its pastrecord, it can be concluded that China will transform these policyintentions into concrete realities. In that case, the Chineseeducation system will usher in a quiet revolution propelling Chinainto a new era of modernization, prosperity and harmony.
The author is the director of the UNESCO Office in Beijingand UNESCO Representative to China, the Democratic People’sRepublic of Korea, Japan, Mongolia and the Republic of Korea.
[bron: China Daily]
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