By Xinhua writer Li Huizi
BEIJING, March 5 (Xinhua) -- Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Monday announced a hefty educational investment plan of the year, making education a "strategic priority."
A total of 85.85 billion yuan (11 billion U.S. dollars) will be allocated from the central budget this year, an increase of 41.7 percent over the previous year, government statistics show.
Part of the central educational fund will be used to grant more poor students the access to education, said Wen while delivering a government work report to the just-opened annual parliamentary session.
"This is another major move we are taking to promote fairness in education following the exemption of all tuition and miscellaneous fees for rural students receiving compulsory education," said the premier, addressing the 2,890 deputies to the National People's Congress (NPC), the top legislature.
A system of national scholarships and tuition assistance will go into operation this semester, which starts in early March, for colleges and vocational schools, said the premier.
The central government fund appropriated for this purpose will be 9.5 billion yuan (1.22 billion U.S. dollars) this year and 20 billion yuan (2.56 billion U.S. dollars) next year, and local governments are required to allocate corresponding amounts from local budgets.
"Education is the bedrock of China's development, and fairness in education is an important form of social fairness," said Wen. "We need to make education a strategic priority and accelerate the development of all types of education at all levels."
The country will further implement the national student loan system that was introduced in 1999 in eight major cities including Beijing and Shanghai and was extended to the rest of the country in 2004.
In China, some families have to pay 8,000 yuan (976 U.S. dollars) every year to support a college student. Such a figure might be years of income for a farmer.
MORE TEACHERS NEEDED
In another major incentive highlighted in the government work report, Wen said the country will grant free education for students majoring in education in teacher colleges.
"The move is to show respect for educational profession in society and to produce larger numbers of outstanding teachers," said the premier, adding the new policy is "to encourage prominent educators to run schools and more outstanding young people to become lifelong educators."
Su Li, a middle school teacher in Beijing, who graduated from the Capital Normal University two years ago, said more students, especially those with excellent school records from poor families, will choose to become teachers and benefit from the free schooling policy.
Chinese schools, especially rural village schools, lack sufficient and qualified teachers, despite increasing investment from the government.
At present, many primary and secondary schools are short of teachers specializing in foreign languages, information technology, music, fine arts and physical education.
A national survey has found that rural schools in China lack about 43 percent of teachers. Statistics last year showed the academic degrees held by teachers in about 310,000 primary and secondary schools did not reach the national standard.
China had 500,000 provisional teachers without formal schooling themselves, and 75.9 percent of them were working in rural areas in western and central China, where most people still live a hard life with less economic development.
Meanwhile, rural teachers, whose monthly income averages 600 to 700 yuan (75 to 87.5 U.S. dollars), often find their wages in arrears. And they do not enjoy preferential medical care and other special treatments like their urban peers.
The government has encouraged urban teachers to work in rural schools in order to improve the overall quality of rural education. College graduates having taught three years in rural schools can continue their postgraduate studies without extra exams within two years of their return to cities.
FREE RURAL SCHOOLING
"This year, we will completely stop collecting tuition and miscellaneous fees from all rural students receiving compulsory education," said Wen. The NPC deputies attending the session, many from the countryside, hailed the promise with loud applause.
Last year China exempted students in rural areas of western China from tuition and miscellaneous fees of the nine-year compulsory education. The exemption policy will be expanded to central and eastern regions this year.
Zhou Lizhen, a rural primary school teacher in east China's Jiangxi Province, remembers her students were overjoyed over the news that they could go to school without submitting any charges.
On the whole, the move will relieve the financial burden of 150 million rural households with school-age children making up nearly 80 percent of the country's primary and junior middle school students.
In addition, the government will continue to provide free textbooks for poor rural students and living allowances for rural boarding students, the premier said.
Official figures show a total of 223.5 billion yuan (28.65 billion U.S. dollars ), up 39.5 billion yuan from last year, will be allocated from the central budget for rural compulsory education this year, and local governments should make corresponding subsidies.