2019 is the first year to see implementation of the ‘Modernization of Education in China plan 2035’ with a comprehensive drive to modernize education across the board. The government’s determination to turn the country into a modern educational powerhouse is also reflected in the Report on Government Work (hereafter referred to as the 2019 Report)delivered by Premier Li Keqiang at the Second Session of the 13th National People’s Congress, which highlighted five strategic tasks for the education sector to achieve this year.
1. Ensuring public investment in education
Since the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012, the central government has prioritized educational development in its economic and social development plans and prioritized government spending and public resources for education. This year’s report also states clearly that “despite significant fiscal constraints, government budgetary spending on education will remain above 4% of GDP, and central government spending on education will exceed one trillion yuan,” confirming central government’s pledge to make education a priority. Accordingly, local governments at different levels will also be required to ensure and increase investment in education as a strategic move towards better educational development.
Apart from setting numerical targets, the report adds that “it is necessary to use these precious funds wisely, and work hard to provide education that our people are happy with, to do justice to the hopes we have for the future,” which highlights the need to make effective use of educational funding and to establish sound fiscal management practices that are open to public scrutiny.
2. Developing more equitable and higher quality education
Educational equity forms the bedrock of social justice. The more education is modernized, the more equity and quality of education should become a focus. The 2019 Report also regards the promotion of equity as a central goal, breaking it down into three sub-objectives:
i. Promote the integrated development of urban and rural compulsory education. More specifically, work should be done to “improve conditions in rural schools” and “quickly address the problem of oversized classes in urban schools, and ensure access to education for children living with their migrant worker parents in cities”;
ii. Ensure access to education for minority and disadvantaged groups. The report states that efforts should be taken to “develop education for ethnic minorities and special education,” “significantly reduce school dropout rates in deprived areas,” and “continue to increase special enrolment quotas at key universities for students from rural and deprived regions, to give full play to the fundamental role of education in breaking the intergenerational poverty cycle;”
iii. Facilitate the coordinated development of education across the board. The report requires that “Internet-Plus-Education models should be developed to promote quality resource sharing” and that work be pursued to “make upper secondary education universal” and “develop world-class universities and world-class disciplines”.
3.Using multiple means to increase the supply of pre-school education
Though remarkable progress has been made in China’s education system over the past four decades, pre-school education remains the weakest link in the whole system. To increase resources in early childhood education, the report notes that “the government will support all kindergartens meeting safety standards, charging reasonable fees, and benefiting from the trust of parents, regardless of whether they are public or private”, which sends a strong message about the importance of accelerating the increase in provision of resources for preschool education. To this end, more government funding needs to be channelled into this area, and policies need to be introduced to support private kindergartens with universal access.
4.Stepping up the development of modern vocational education
As China pursues high-quality economic development, the mismatch between the quality of the labour force and industrial demands is becoming more apparent. There is a severe shortage of innovative and highly-skilled talents, in particular. To address this, the 2019 Report specifies four tasks to improve vocational education:
i. Implement a vocational skills training initiative. 100 billion RMB should be allocated from surplus unemployment insurance funds to provide training for over 15 million people to retrain with new skills, change career or move to a different industry;
ii. Increase enrolment in vocational colleges. Vocational college entrance exam systems should be improved to encourage applications from senior high school graduates, military retirees, the unemployed and migrant workers, to reach the one million student enrolment target for this year;
iii. Accelerate vocational education reforms. Efforts should be made to align professional technical qualifications with academic credentials; optimize vocational college management to raise the quality of their training, and support the private sector in providing vocational education; and
iv. Increase investment in vocational education. The central government will provide greater financial support to vocational colleges, and local governments should follow suit. A state scholarship system will be established for secondary vocational education with instruction centres built to facilitate the integration of technical training and academic education.
This is the first time vocational education has been discussed at such length in a government work report since 2008. The impact is far-reaching in at least three aspects: reshaping public views about different kinds of professions; putting vocational education on an equal footing with regular education; and facilitating high-quality economic development.
5. Enhancing teacher workforce development
In 2018, the central government issued its first document devoted to teacher workforce development, requiring party committees and governments at different levels to reconsider the significance of this issue from a strategic perspective. It also stated clearly that teacher-related matters should be prioritized in educational development plans, teacher income be guaranteed and teacher capacity building be supported.
The 2019 Report also pledges that the government will “continue to strictly ensure compulsory education teacher salaries remain on par with local public servants”, sending a strong message that more will be put in place to build a stronger teaching body and increase the attractiveness of the teaching profession.