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China’s education: 40 years of epic achievements

Source: People's Daily

In just 4 decades since December 1978, when the Party decided at the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee to embark on a new path of reform and opening up, from being a weak nation with extended periods of destitution, China has emerged as the world’s second largest economy.

Education played a pivotal role in bringing about this unprecedented economic miracle in human history. Forty years ago, DENG Xiaoping, who orchestrated the reforms, famously said that “China will not become a modernized country just by talking about a grand vision: it must cultivate the necessary expertise and talent to make that vision a reality”. He reinstated the gaokao system, which rekindled the enthusiasm for learning of tens of millions of young people who hankered for a place at university. His vision of building a powerful China was grounded in efforts to develop education and build technological prowess was enshrined as a national strategy, which ensured that respect for knowledge and talent was mainstreamed in succeeding development programs. This fast-tracked the development of China’s education. Over the last 4 decades, China has prioritized education in its development efforts, as the country embarked on a unique development path with socialist characteristics. Unprecedented advances in education have substantially elevated the average Chinese citizens’ moral and ethical attainments, as well as their scientific and reading/writing literacy. China now appears in the mid-to-top range of world education rankings, and is home to the world’s largest educational sector, one holding the greatest growth potential and developing at a faster pace than in any other country.

China’s education has improved by leaps and bounds. In 1978, only 60 per cent of primary school pupils went on to study in junior high schools, and the number of college and graduate students was 856,000 and 10,000, respectively. Today, China has built the world’s largest education sector with 270 million students enrolled in 514,000 educational institutions. The three-year gross enrollment rate in kindergartens rose from 10.6% to 79.6%; the net enrollment rate in primary schools rose from 94% to 99.9%. Gross enrollment rates have also risen substantially in junior high schools from 66.4% to 103.5%; in senior high schools, from 33.6% to 88.3% and in tertiary education, from 33.6% to 88.3%. These impressive improvements at all levels of education have put China in the ranks of middle-and high-income countries, in terms of education. In just over 20 years, China has achieved universal coverage in nine-year compulsory education, a goal that took western countries nearly a century to attain.

Progress has been made on multiple fronts: from hardware to software, from teaching material to teaching methods, from conventional management approaches to modern governance, and increasing the quality of all the ingredients used in the education mix. The 1995 Education Law stipulated that educational spending should grow at a faster pace than local government regular income, and that funding per teacher and student should also increase steadily. In 2012, educational spending stood at 4% of GDP and has grown ever since. In 2017, public spending on education reached 3.4 trillion RMB. The number of teachers at all levels of education increased 1.8-fold from 8.99 million in 1978 to 16.23 million in 2017, and China has built a teaching force made up of professional teachers equipped with practical skills. These efforts have been supported through legislation, including eight national laws on education, 16 education-related regulations, administrative directives, and local rules.

Our progress has been felt across the world. In 2009, China was the focus of the world’s attention as students from Shanghai outperformed their peers in dozens of OECD countries in its debut participation to the Program for International Student Assessment, known as PISA. In the last 40 years, China has sent out a large number of students overseas for further studies, and attracted an equally large number of international students to its degree programs. The number of foreign students studying in China increased from about 1,200 from 1978 to 480,000 in 2017, making China the largest destination in Asia for international students. The country has established 2,385 joint educational institutions and projects and 8 high-level people-to-people exchange schemes, through partnerships with over 180 countries or territories. It has built 533 Confucius Institutes and 1,140 Confucius classrooms across 150 countries or territories. And today, the number Chinese speakers and learners outside of China has reached 100 million.

In the last 40 years, examinations have been gradually shifted towards testing students’ skills in applying knowledge rather than ability to simply memorize information, to be better aligned with the overarching purpose of education. Classified tests, comprehensive evaluation and assorted admissions criteria have been introduced as an alternative to the gaokao as students’ only ticket to a future of possibilities. The testing and admissions system has undergone constant improvement, going from standardized tests in 1989 to a “three + x” model in 1998: the “3” corresponding to the three mandatory disciplines, namely Chinese, mathematics and English language, while “x” stands for the three subjects that can be selected from physics, chemistry, biology, politics, history, and geography. A recommendation-based admissions method piloted in 1984 was replaced by a reform in 2003 that allowed universities to independently enroll students. In 1998, access to higher education was limited, with a gross enrolment rate of only 9.8%. In 1999, the central government decided to expand higher education enrollment by adding 1.5968 million places, an increase of 47.4% on the previous year. In 2014, China launched the most systematic and comprehensive reform to the gaokao system since it was reintroduced in 1977. In 2017, Shanghai and Zhejiang province successfully began admitting students based on multiple assessment criteria.

The past 40 years have also seen a flourishing education sector that has greatly facilitated China’s drive to become a modernized socialist country, and provided the needed intellectual impetus for China’s rising comprehensive strengths and international status.

Access to education over the past four decades has also improved at all levels, including the introduction of pathways between different types of education. Academic education and vocational education, funded by both the public and private sectors, both at degree and non-degree levels, have grown in tandem. Currently, there are 12,000 vocational schools across China serving 26.8 million students, accounting for half of China’s secondary and higher education, respectively. Those who have missed out on a college education have the opportunity to get a BA through online learning, self-study, and college entrance exams for adults, as well as attending open universities, radio and TV universities and MOOC programs.

The last 4 decades have also witnessed growing equity in education, with the right to access education better safeguarded. As of the autumn term of 2008, universal access to free compulsory education became a reality across China, marking a new milestone in the history of education in China. Greater effort has been invested in supporting education in rural areas and under-developed central and western provinces. Boarding schools have been built in rural areas, class sizes have been greatly reduced, and poverty-alleviation projects have been implemented across the country. Now, over 80 per cent of counties have achieved the goal of balancing development in compulsory education. More pupils than ever from rural and under-developed provinces have access to more equitable education. More than 37 million rural students have benefitted from the national student nutrition program. A financial aid system covering students from pre-school to postgraduate level has been established, ensuring that no student from a disadvantaged background is forced to drop out because of financial difficulties. More than 80 per cent of children received education in cities where their migrant parents worked, and care for left-behind children has been improved. More than 90 of children with visual, hearing and intellectual disabilities are in compulsory education.

In the last 40 years, China’s education system has supplied quality human resources and technological expertise. Since the late 1970s, China’s universities have produced more than 99 million high-caliber professionals, while vocational schools have graduated more than 200 million skilled technicians. The number of graduates from higher education has increased nearly 50-fold from 165,000 to 82 million in four decades. Currently, China’s working population has received an average education spanning 10.5 years, and more than 45% of new entrants into the workforce have higher education qualifications with on average 13.5 years of education, which exceeds the world average. A number of major programs aimed at bolstering world class universities and disciplines in the 21st century have been implemented, including Project 211, Project 985 and the Double First-Class initiative. Thanks to these efforts, China’s universities have been edging up world university rankings, with more making it to the top 100, and some 100 disciplines making it to the world’s top 1,000. Universities accounted for over 60 per cent of China’s basic research and major research projects, more than 60 per cent of China’s key national laboratories, more than 60 per cent of rewards for scientific and technological achievements, and over 80 per cent of published papers, research projects funded by the Natural Science Foundation, and the number of researchers in philosophy and the Social Sciences. Universities were responsible for a host of groundbreaking achievements in the fields of manned spaceflight, quantum communications, supercomputing, providing a strong impetus to China’s goal to become an innovation-oriented nation.

After 40 years of reform, education in China is now at the dawn of a new era. At this year’s national education conference held on September 10, new reform pathways were charted to make education better aligned with the needs of the people as well as the goal of building China into a modern educational powerhouse.

It is important that we fully appreciate President Xi’s remarks on education at the conference and implement his instructions about prioritizing education. We must bear in mind that reinforcement of student moral development is a fundamental task. Moral education must be stepped up to develop patriotism and perseverance among students, boost their confidence in the country’s future prosperity, and promote all-round development. The capacity-building of teachers must be reinforced, and their remunerations must be improved to ensure that they are fully devoted to their profession without having to bear the burden of financial worries. Institutional reforms must remove legacy hurdles hindering progress, such as student evaluation systems focused solely on student test scores and enrollment rates, and teacher recruitment and performance evaluation systems based solely on degrees, published papers, and professional titles.

The last four decades have borne witness to the bountiful harvest reaped of hard work and a relentless commitment to fulfilling educational goals. Today, as we stand at a new starting line, we must be reminded of the greater role each of us must play in supporting China’s march toward prosperity and national rejuvenation. We must press ahead with reforms to edge closer to the goal of becoming a modern educational power, by rallying around the Party central committee with comrade XI Jinping at the core.

[By CHEN Baosheng, Minister of Education]