China Table of Contents

Role in Modernization

Because only 4 percent of the nation's middle-school graduates are admitted to universities, China has found it necessary to develop other ways of meeting the demand for education. Adult education has become increasingly important in helping China meet its modernization goals. Adult, or "nonformal," education is an alternative form of higher education that encompasses radio, television, and correspondence universities, spare-time and part-time universities, factory-run universities for staff and workers, and county-run universities for peasants, many operating primarily during students' off-work hours. These alternative forms of education are economical. They seek to educate both the "delayed generation"--those who lost educational opportunities during the Cultural Revolution--and to raise the cultural, scientific, and general education levels of workers on the job.

Alternative Forms

Schools have been established by government departments, businesses, trade unions, academic societies, democratic parties, and other organizations. In 1984 about 70 percent of China's factories and enterprises supported their own part-time classes, which often were referred to as workers' colleges. In Beijing alone, more than ninety adult-education schools with night schools enrolled tens of thousands of students. More than 20,000 of these students graduated annually from evening universities, workers' colleges, television universities, and correspondence schools--more than twice the number graduating from regular colleges and universities. The government spent -Y200 to -Y500 per adult education student and at least -1,000 per regular university student. In 1984 approximately 1.3 million students enrolled in television, correspondence, and evening universities, about a 30-percent increase over 1983.

Spare-time education for workers and peasants and literacy classes for the entire adult population were other components of basic education. Spare-time education included a very broad range of educational activities at all levels. Most spare-time schools were sponsored by factories and run for their own workers; they provided fairly elementary education, as well as courses to upgrade technical skills. Most were on-the-job training and retraining courses, a normal part of any industrial system. These schools continually received publicity in the domestic media as a symbol of social justice, but it was unclear whether they received adequate resources to achieve this end.

China's educational television system began in 1960 but was suspended during the Cultural Revolution in 1966. In 1979 the Central Radio and Television University was established in Beijing with branches in twenty-eight provincial-level universities. Many Central Radio and Television University students are recent seniormiddle -school graduates who scored just below the cut-off point for admission to conventional colleges and universities. Full-time (who take four courses) and part-time students (two courses) have at least two years' work experience, and they return to their jobs after graduation. Spare-time students (one course) study after work. Students whose work units grant them permission to study in a television university are paid their normal wages; expenses for most of their books and other educational materials are paid for by the state. A typical Central Radio and Television University student spends up to six hours a day over a three-year period watching lectures on videotapes produced by some of the best teachers in China. These lectures are augmented by face-to-face tutoring by local instructors and approximately four hours of homework each evening. The major problem with the system is that there are too few television sets.

In 1987 the Central Television and Radio University had its programs produced, transmitted and financed by the Ministry of Radio, Cinema, and Television. The State Education Commission developed its curriculum and distributed its printed support materials. Curriculum included both basic, general-purpose courses in science and technology and more specialized courses. Programs in English-language instruction were particularly popular. The Central Television and Radio University offered more than 1,000 classes in Beijing and its suburbs and 14 majors in 2- to 3-year courses through 56 working centers. Students who passed final examinations were given certificates entitling them to the same level of remuneration as graduates of regular, full-time colleges and universities. The state gave certain allowances to students awaiting jobs during their training period.

Literacy and Language Reform

The continuing campaigns to eradicate illiteracy also were a part of basic education. Chinese government statistics indicated that of a total population of nearly 1.1 billion in 1985, about 230 million people were illiterate or semiliterate. The difficulty of mastering written Chinese makes raising the literacy rate particularly difficult. In general, language reform was intended to make written and spoken Chinese easier to learn, which in turn would foster both literacy and linguistic unity and serve as a foundation for a simpler written language. In 1951 the party issued a directive that inaugurated a three-part plan for language reform. The plan sought to establish universal comprehension of a standardized common language, simplify written characters, and introduce, where possible, romanized forms based on the Latin alphabet. In 1956 putonghua was introduced as the language of instruction in schools and in the national broadcast media, and by 1977 it was in use throughout China, particularly in the government and party, and in education. Although in 1987 the government continued to endorse the goal of universalizing putonghua, hundreds of regional and local dialects continued to be spoken, complicating interregional communication.

A second language reform required the simplification of ideographs because ideographs with fewer strokes are easier to learn. In 1964 the Committee for Reforming the Chinese Written Language released an official list of 2,238 simplified characters most basic to the language. Simplification made literacy easier, although people taught only in simplified characters were cut off from the wealth of Chinese literature written in traditional characters. Any idea of replacing ideographic script with romanized script was soon abandoned, however by government and education leaders.

A third area of change involved the proposal to use the pinyin romanization system more widely. Pinyin (first approved by the National People's Congress in 1958) was encouraged primarily to facilitate the spread of putonghua in regions where other dialects and languages are spoken. By the mid-1980s, however, the use of pinyin was not as widespread as the use of putonghua.

Retaining literacy was as much a problem as acquiring it, particularly among the rural population. Literacy rates declined between 1966 and 1976. Political disorder may have contributed to the decline, but the basic problem was that the many Chinese ideographs can be mastered only through rote learning and are often forgotten because of disuse.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress