A spot at Tsinghua University, where I’ve been based these past six months, is awarded each year to the top few thousand students sitting the gruelling gaokao, the national university entrance exam. Every student here has fought off stiff competition for their place—just 3000 or so of the 9M+ taking the test will get in—but some have faced down even higher odds than their classmates. Women, for a start (currently about a 1:5 ratio against men), but, just as seriously—and less visibly—students from the 农村, China’s countryside.
The obstacles facing China’s poor rural students are the focus of REAP, the Rural Education Action Project, born of a collaboration between Stanford University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. At a TEDx Beijing event last month, REAP's co-director Scott Rozelle painted a vivid picture of the scale of the problem. The gap between students in large cities in China and those in poor rural areas going on to university is 35 to 1. But that gap starts long before college. In 2005, just 40% of rural students went on to high school, against 83% of their urban compatriots. The number of city-dwellers may have surpassed the rural population in China this year, but the countryside is still home to over a third of China’s future workforce: 35% of school-aged children live in poor rural areas.
The figures need little dressing up, but it was Rozelle’s placing them in the broader development context which really drove the point home. China is, it hopes, shifting from the “workshop of the world” to a higher-skilled, higher-wage economy. In the 1980s, South Korea and Mexico were going through the same transition. South Korea managed relatively successfully, while Mexico has struggled. The link with education? In South Korea in the 80s and 90s, urban and rural high school enrollment rates were more or less equal at over 95%. In the same period, rural participation in high school education in Mexico was about half the urban level. The figures for China today look almost identical to Mexico in the 80s: that, said Rozelle, should be a wake-up call.
The challenges that face rural students are manifold. Although the government has now established free K-9 education for all, K-10 to 12 must be self-funded, and the cost of secondary education in China is amongst the highest in the world. In addition, good quality secondary education is rarer in resource-poor rural areas. REAP’s work has also highlighted the impact of hidden and untreated health problems—anemia, near-sightedness, intestinal worms—on attendance and achievement. For many, a factory job with a relatively attractive wage seems a better choice. That may be the case now, but as China’s economy starts to turn its energies from the factories that have fuelled the last decade to the bright minds and sharp thinking that will shape the next, it must take its rural students with it.
In part two of this blog, I’ll look at how REAP’s “action research”, a collaborative approach to impact evaluation, programme design and implementation, is achieving results and providing an innovative model for NGO work in China.
About Jessica Davies: Jessica is studying Mandarin Chinese in Beijing. Before heading East, she completed her bachelors in philosophy and modern languages at Oxford, interning with FSG in Geneva during her year abroad. She heads home to the UK this summer to face the classroom from the other side of the desk, as a participant on Teach First.