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Free university for China's future teachers
Latest Updated by 2007-05-08 09:32:00

Jia Lina's parents have been breaking their backs in the farming field of Hebei for the past year to pay for their daughter's way through university. Now they can rest a little easier. The Beijing Normal University second-year student is eligible for free university tuition under a new trial program aimed at improving education standards in rural areas.

"It will relieve my parents' burden remarkably," said Jia from Hengshui, Hebei Province.

Her parents had earned most of her annual 5,400 yuan (692 U.S. dollars) tuition fees by laboring in crop fields and also borrowing money from friends.

Jia is one of the 10,000 students to benefit from a free tuition program, announced by Premier Wen Jiabao at the National People's Congress (NPC) in March. It will be trialled this year at six teacher-training universities. The 100 million yuan (12.8 million U.S. dollars) trial aims to train more rural teachers. However, the plan to waive tuition fees for some students has incurred mixed reactions.

A student spends about 10,000 yuan (1,280 U.S. dollars) each year at most universities, nearly a year's average disposable income in China's developed areas.

To be eligible for free tuition, the student must agree to work at a rural school for a minimum of three years after graduation. This pre-requisite is not popular among students from richer families.

Sun Xiaojiao, also a second-year student at Beijing Normal University, said: "It really gives a chance for the students whose families are poor, but I will not consider the waiver. I don't want to spend three years in a remote area as I couldn't bear the hardship. Anyway, my parents wouldn't allow me to do that."

Like Sun, many students from wealthier families shook their heads when asked whether they would apply for free schooling. However, poorer students are taking the opportunity with both hands and enjoy the rural education challenge.

"I wanted to be a teacher so I chose Beijing Normal University and plan to work as a high school teacher in my hometown," Jia said. "Competition in Beijing is too fierce and I don't want to fight for a footing in such choking crowds.

"Three of my six dormmates have the same plans to go back to our hometowns as we all came from rural areas.

"It's not that bad to work in the countryside as long as I can get a job and become a good teacher.

"It's just our parents who would be a little disappointed as they sent us away (to cities) and hoped we could start a better life there."

However, students who sign up are not legally obliged to follow it through. Students are allowed to change their mind upon graduation and choose another option, as long as they pay back the tuition fees in full, according to information from the universities.

Yuan Guiren, deputy minister of Education, said full details with regards to the trial program would be published for further scrutiny.

The program has won much public applause. However, it has also been criticized because the scheme was not extended to more universities.

"Why do teachers always enjoy 'super citizen' treatment?" asked Tengxun, one of China's growing band of netizens. "They are the only group in China that enjoy three months' paid holiday while few people are lucky enough to enjoy just one month off work."

Some worry that the government's policy will create new imbalances in education. "The preferential policy only targets the potential teachers in the six teaching schools and it is unfair for the students in others," said Zhang Xinjian, deputy director of the Ministry of Culture's Department of Culture Market.

"The trial policy will also need remarkable monetary investment and should be carried out only after hearings."

Many have urged for the trial program to be extended to local teacher-training schools in order to boost the education resources in rural areas where the primary and middle schools are badly staffed.

"Most graduates from the six elite universities are reluctant to go to the rural areas. It's more practical to carry out the policy in local teaching schools, which actually provides the backbone of training teachers for the rural areas," said Lu Shanzhen, a professor at Beijing Normal University.

This might just be what the policy makers have anticipated. According to Finance Minister Jin Renqing, the program is expected to serve as a model for many provincial governments to follow.

Indeed, Education Minister Zhou Ji stated that the move aims to encourage more outstanding talents to choose teaching as a career.

Some doubt it will raise the threshold for students to enter teaching universities. Many high school students, whose families are poverty stricken, say they would take teaching schools as a preferential choice.

"It could save 40,000 yuan (5,128 U.S. dollars) in four years -a good choice as my family is poor, and to tell the truth, I really want to be a teacher," said Xie Yulin, a student in his final year at Yiling High School in Hubei Province.

As for Jia, whose sister will take the university entrance exam later this year, she said her family would not make her sister choose a teaching school against her own will. "She has her own dream," said Jia, "people should not abandon their dreams simply because of this (tuition waiver)."

Free education in teaching colleges had been in practice since the burgeoning of China's modern education in the early 1900s. From the late 1990s, however, many teaching schools gradually started charging because of overwhelming education reforms. At the same time, growing numbers of graduates from the teacher-training schools began to choose non-teaching jobs after graduation.

China's education has been under fire over the past decade for imbalances in rural-urban educational resources distribution, an exam-oriented teaching method, soaring fees, recruitment expansion and some deterioration in teaching quality.

"Many graduates from teaching schools can't find a teaching job- there are too many people there," said 24-year-old Du Jun, who graduated from Leshan Normal College in Sichuan Province.

Du failed to find a teaching job in Leshan when he graduated last year and is now working in Beijing as a salesman. "The training schools have been recruiting more and more students, but there are only a certain number of jobs. I hope the government could better study the supply and demand relationship," Du said.

Huang Chunchang, director of the Tourism and Environment College of Shaanxi Normal University, said China is heavily burdened with its huge population and this situation can only be turned into an advantage by large-scale education.

"It's necessary to increase university recruitment since many are hoping to achieve higher education after graduation from high schools, and thus high-calibre teaching staff are important," he said.

However, despite many opposing opinions on the government's new scheme, the move has been acclaimed as a prelude to China's increasing investment in its education system.

Bi Cheng, a researcher with the Chinese National Institute for Educational Research, said, "The most impressive point in the new policy is that the government is finally playing its role in addressing the imbalances in rural-urban education resources - it's a substantial and down-to-earth step in the government's efforts to achieve a fairer education system throughout the country."

Editor: Wing

By: Source:China View website
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