Nicholas Kristof recently published an op-ed in the New York Times about how great education is in China. Mostly it was same-old, same-old: Chinese families value education and respect teachers, and Chinese students work harder, so they outperform American students. On the face of it, these seem to me reasonable claims, even if they are simplistic and banal. But he also suggests that the Chinese state--the People's Republic of China, that is--is doing a bang-up job of operating an educational system. To which I could not help but reply: Say what?
Somewhere in the middle he writes:
"Teachers are respected and compensated far better, financially and emotionally, in China than in America...The town [of Dongguan] devotes 21 percent of its budget to education, and it now has four universities. An astonishing 58 percent of the residents age 18 to 22 are enrolled in a university."
Now, I am not an expert on this, of course, but what I've seen about the Chinese education system in the Chinese media and scattered foreign reports over the past few years has suggested that public funding for education in China is in a pretty dismal state. Consider this excerpt from a report based on a UNESCO/OECD study:
"The available data indicate that public spending on education and health [in China] was 2.8% and 0.6% respectively of revised GDP in 2004. These ratios are lower than in many developing countries such as Thailand and the Philippines, let alone OECD countries. Spending on education and health appears low not only relative to other countries, but also in comparison with China’s own national objectives."
Based on the same set of data, another report notes that "In relation to GDP, [Chinese] public spending on education and health is well below that of nearly all OECD as well as most comparable developing countries, while private spending in these areas is among the highest in the world."
You can find the relevant tables here.
For comparison, the same report puts public spending on education in the US at 3.8% of (a much larger) GDP. So is Dongguan an anomaly (and if so, why?), or does “the town of Dongguan” really mean “the private citizens of Dongguan,” or has public funding for education in China skyrocketed between the OECD report and now? I doubt the last possibility.
Anecdotally, this failure to fund appears in the form of complaints about elementary and secondary schools starting to charge fees for everything from books to activities—fees that are heavy and amount to a tuition charge for the education that is supposed to be compulsory and provided by the state. The Chinese media have resounded with such complaints for several years. Google the term luan shou fei 乱收费 (“arbitrarily collecting fees”) and you will get 2 million hits, some of which are about hospitals (responding to a similar lack of public funding for health), but most of which are about “public” schools. Does this really sound like a society in which “governments and families alike pour resources into education”?
If the student’s family can scrape up the fees to get her through primary and secondary school, she does have a better chance of going to college than in the past, since the Chinese government initiated a massive expansion of the higher education system in 1999. Last year I read a report (which seems no longer to be available) about this on the website of the Center on Chinese Education at Columbia. It said that in 1978 there were 856,000 students total in Chinese colleges and universities, and in 2000 the number of places available for freshmen alone was 1.8 million. And last year during the national college entrance exam, the Chinese newspapers reported that the number of freshman slots available at four-year colleges was 2.6 million.
But this has not been an unmitigated good for Chinese society. The number of jobs available for university graduates is now much smaller than the number of university graduates, meaning that a lot of students and their families are going into debt for a college degree that ends up meaning nothing in terms of earning potential or social advancement. This is one source of great dissatisfaction and potential unrest among young Chinese.
Finally, when Kristof concedes (in a single sentence) that China’s education system does have a few problems--“bribes and fees to get into good schools, huge classes of 50 or 60 students, second-rate equipment and lousy universities”—he seems to trivialize corruption. My impression is that corruption is a very serious problem indeed, though of course it’s hard to gauge its extent. It’s not just bribes to get into schools, but bribes to certify teachers who fail to pass tests; bribes that add points to wealthy students' scores on the gao kao (national college entrance exam); and much more.
Kristof's culture-based points I find it easier to accept; the Chinese certainly value education, and families (even very poor ones) are willing to devote a great deal of their collective resources to it. It would be nice if more American families shared this attitude. But I think that lauding the People’s Republic of China for “boosting education,” as he does, misrepresents a system that is deeply dysfunctional.