BEIJIGG, April 21 -- China has attracted global attention in recent times for its inspiring and staggering achievements in the economic arena. The impeccably organized Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the prospects of the biggest expo in history in Shanghai this year have fired the public imagination and worked wonders for national pride.
Yet, a quiet revolution that has underpinned many of these achievements has gone relatively unnoticed. This is the transformation of China from a largely illiterate country in 1949, when the People's Republic was established, to a country where almost all children attend school for nine years and the literacy rate of young people aged 15 to 24 is 99 percent.
These historic achievements have contributed to China's ranking in the Human Development Index (HDI) rising to 92nd out of 180 countries.
This speaks volumes for the vision and determination of the Chinese leadership. Nevertheless, China faces challenges in addressing disparity and quality in education. Viewed in this context, China's Medium and Long-Term Education Reform and Development Plan Outline is a timely response to the challenges of creating a knowledge-based society. The outline was released to the public in February after intensive consultations.
Premier Wen Jiabao demonstrated firm commitment of the Chinese leadership to education reform by convening five separate sessions to engage in a dialogue with people from different parts of the country. This is by no means an ordinary occurrence, as the UN believes and has repeatedly emphasized the critical importance of political commitment for the achievement of the Education for All (EFA) and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
The process of consultation continues as millions of people use the power of the Internet to send in their comments on the outline. It is evident that the Chinese people are eager to contribute and participate in the reform of the education system.
The Chinese government deserves to be commended for developing a comprehensive outline that sets strategic goals and targets for education development in the next 10 years.
The outline stresses the right of all citizens to receive education and promises allocation of resources in favor of rural, impoverished, ethnic and vulnerable groups.
It emphasizes the importance of all round development of the personality of learners. Incentives are provided for greater participation of the non-government sector in education.
With a view to installing a standard and scientific evaluation system, there is a welcome willingness to cooperate with "first class international education assessment agencies".
Agreements on mutual recognition of academic degrees will be concluded with more countries and regions. In the spirit of reciprocity international aid to education shall be enhanced to develop human resources in other developing countries.
One might ask the question: "So what is missing?" A group of UN agencies and international organizations based in Beijing undertook a review of the outline in response to an invitation from the Ministry of Education. While our overall response is positive we raised four major concerns.
The first relates to the feasibility of achieving the ambitious goals set out by the outline without raising the level of investment on education as a proportion of GDP. The goal of 4 percent proposed in the Education Reform and Development Plan Outline of 1993 is retained.
This may be understandable as current educational investment is yet to reach that level. Nevertheless, this is still below the internationally recommended norm of 6 percent of GNP. Quality gaps and funding disparities between regions are severe.
According to the 2010 EFA Global Monitoring Report, per student expenditure on junior middle schools is 18 times higher in Beijing and Shanghai than in the poorest provinces. Can these disparities be addressed without raising the level of funding in education significantly?
Second, in keeping with China's resolve to develop an internationally competitive education system to match its status as the third-largest economy and to meet the rising aspirations and expectations of the people, there is a strong case for extending the duration of free and compulsory education from nine to 12 years in line with industrialized nations.
Third, while China's contribution to the reduction of global illiteracy has been significant, it still has 71 million illiterates in the age group of 15 and above, of which more than two thirds are women. Illiteracy persists among ethnic minorities and rural populations. While the outline alludes to various programs to expand opportunities for continuing education and lifelong learning, there is no firm commitment to address the problem of residual and emerging illiteracy.
Fourth, perhaps the most glaring omission in the outline is the absence of any reference to gender in education. Although China has achieved gender parity in primary education, gender equality remains a particular challenge.
It is necessary to articulate a strategy to improve girls' and women's participation, retention and achievement in education at all levels. Although women's status has improved over the last 60 years, there are serious challenges relating to the skewed sex ratio at birth in favor of men, the prevalence of domestic violence and abuse of women and discrimination at the work place.
From a broader development perspective, it is necessary that education is seen as an instrument for the empowerment of women.
The Chinese government is expected to address these and other concerns raised during the process of consultation. These range from improvement in the status, morale and professionalism of teachers to the employment prospects of university graduates, the increasing load of the school bag, rote learning and the examination system.
China has the political commitment, resources and institutional capacity to implement its plans and programs. Based on its past record, it can be concluded that China will transform these policy intentions into concrete realities. In that case, the Chinese education system will usher in a quiet revolution propelling China into a new era of modernization, prosperity and harmony.
The author is the director of the UNESCO Office in Beijing and UNESCO Representative to China, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Japan, Mongolia and the Republic of Korea.
(Source: China Daily)