And Finally

Free to learn

Oil-rich Shaanxi’s educational experiment

Free to learn

Top marks for Wuqi

In many parts of China, student dropout rates remain high, especially for girls. Most quit at around 13. Many parents would prefer a helping hand in the paddy field or an additional source of income from factory work.

But not in Wuqi, a county of 69,000 people in Shaanxi Province. Thanks to its large deposits of crude oil, Wuqi has become wealthy. And the locals are enjoying free education at the county’s expense, something pretty unusual elsewhere in China.

Wuqi’s new programmes, implemented three years ago, have dramatically changed its education system. By Chinese law, all children are entitled to nine years of schooling. But Wuqi offers more, including free kindergarten and vocational training. The Skills for All Programme allows residents under the age of 45 to attend any technical school around the country, with the county government covering all tuition fees, says Caixin. In addition, Wuqi also offers subsidies on student housing, food and other expenses.

Even though the nation’s high schools are not allowed to charge tuition, students typically pay approximately Rmb3,500 per year ($511) of ‘’miscellaneous fees,” not a small sum for an average family, reports the 21CN Business Herald.

Since 2006, Wuqi has spent over 10% of its total expenditures on education. Spend in 2009 on education reached Rmb285 million ($41.6 million). Its efforts have prompted wider discussion as to whether other local governments should follow suit. Not unexpectedly, most municipalities say that they don’t have the financial resources to follow Wuqi’s example.

Excuses, says Feng Zhendong, Party secretary of Wuqi. Most local governments do have the funds – they just don’t want to put them into education. With economic growth at the top of most local governments’ agenda (and a key contributor on the personal scorecards of many individual officials), authorities have the tendency to favour investment that sees a more immediate economic boost, Feng says.

That tends to mean spending on infrastructure projects rather than on text books and classrooms.

Back in Wuqi, local residents are worried that the county will not be able to keep up with its promise of free education in the long-run. One resident predicted a return to previous arrangements once the funds became less readily available: “It’s nice for now, sure. But the oil is going to run out”.

Another issue is whether Wuqi itself will benefit from its generosity. Many argue that those who are educated under the new programmes aren’t likely to stay in the county for long.

Feng admits it himself: “The graduates from our county will not come back after graduation if they can find a job in the major cities.”

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