New classrooms alone are not enough to encourage children from the country’s poorest families to stay in school. And so in 2005, the state began to hand out free textbooks to primary and junior middle school students, as well as award subsidies to students in need of board. Of the 130 million rural students in China, as many as 30 million are boarders.
Wang Mengmeng, an eighth grader at the No. 1 Middle School of Shangji Town, Xuchang City, Jiangxi Province, had lived with her father and grandmother since her mother died when she was small. All the family’s income comes from their two-mu (about 0.13 hectares) farmland and odd jobs her father takes during the off-season. Earlier this year, Mengmeng’s school put her on its subsidy recipient roster.
“The allowance was set at RMB 625 for the four-month spring semester. This gave Mengmeng about RMB 5 per day – enough to cover meals,” explained school principal Su Wenwei. With free textbooks, zero tuition fees and a daily allowance, students like Wang Mengmeng don’t pay a cent.
Though many rural students don’t live at school, on average they have at least one meal a day on school grounds. Due to insufficient funding, school canteens have lacked the resources to produce nutritious food for students. In 2010 and 2011 the central budget and the Ministry of Education appropriated RMB 16.9 billion to upgrade living facilities in rural schools, including canteens and dormitories. At the end of 2011 another RMB 10 billion was earmarked especially for school canteens in the countryside.
Starting in the fall semester of 2011 China kicked off a nutrition improvement program in its least developed areas that subsidizes meals for students in primary and junior middle schools at the rate of RMB 3 per head per day. This requires an annual outlay of RMB 16 billion from the central coffers. The first phrase of the program covers 26 million students in 680 cities and counties, accounting for nearly 30 percent of rural students in central and western China.
Among the 3,918 graduates of the Jinzhai Schools of Hope, more than 700 received financial aid. Many are now studying in the country’s top universities such as Tsinghua University and the University of Science and Technology of China. Higher education would have been out of their reach without such financial assistance.
As Yadie, a teacher at the Central Primary School in Mainling County, Nyingchi Prefecture, Tibet, said about the subsidies: “All parents need to do is get their children to the gate of the school. We take care of the rest.”
Since 1985 Tibet has promoted boarding schools among its nomadic rural population, providing children with free accommodation and exempting them from tuition fees. Half a million rural students benefited from this policy. The autonomous region’s enrollment rate hit 99.2 percent for primary schools and 98.2 for junior middle schools in 2010. The difference with 50 years ago could hardly be starker – when the autonomous region was liberated in 1951, more than 95 percent of the local population were illiterate or semi-illiterate.
Education Comes First
As getting all students through nine-year compulsory education has become the norm in China, many places in the country are now looking toward 12 years of heavily subsidized education as the new benchmark.
Policies have been in place since 2008 in Dongguan City’s Shipai Town, Guangdong Province, to offer the three additional years of free education on top of the standard nine.
This is only one part of the education revolution in the town. Since 2009, kindergartens have been free there. Since 2010, students at the junior college level as well as undergraduates, postgraduates and doctoral candidates have been entitled to receive an annual stipend of RMB 4,000, 6,000, 8,000 and 10,000 respectively.
These measures have technically made possible 25 years of tuition-free schooling. Before these measures, less than 10 people from Shipai Town made it to university every year. In 2009, the number had jumped to 198, and by 2010, 219 were heading on to tertiary institutions.
The town and its affiliated villages spend approximately RMB 15 million on the new polices each year. As a coastal area in South China, Shipai boasts comparatively high fiscal revenues, and education expenditures are a relatively small part of the budget. Lu Yibiao, a town official, breaks down the 2009 figures: affiliated villages allocated RMB 5 million to education subsidies, while total revenue for the year was RMB 270 million. Shipai Town spent RMB 10 million for free education, while tax receipts were RMB 360 million. Lu Yibiao says that as the town’s finances stand at present, heavily subsidizing local children’s education from kindergarten right through to university is completely affordable.