The tragedy of education fees for China’s poor

Posted by Martyn

A tragic story made headlines this week in the Chinese and English language press and also the international media, regarding the suicide of a working mum of modest means who despaired that she could never afford to pay her daughter’s university fees. The Chinese press concluded that this situation is far from unique in China, a country still undergoing a difficult transition from free education and healthcare to fee-based systems. The transition, however, takes a heavy toll on China’s poorer families, of whom many see education as their only way out of poverty.

The deceased, Mrs. Li Fenxiang, had supported her paralyzed husband, his mother and her two daughters since 2002. As a result of medical fees, debts had amounted to over 10,000 yuan (US$1,235), a huge amount of money for a poor rural family. The college fees were 7,000 yuan (US$853) per year. Mrs. Li’s income was less than 1,500 yuan (US$183) per year. Her daughter dreamed of attending the Kunming Medical College, however, as soon as notification arrived informing her that she had passed the entrance examination and would be offered a place, her mother hung herself rather than face further anguish.

This story also has a terrible final twist: the following day, the official enrollment notice arrived together with a statement promising government financial aid and a list of education grants available to needy families. Mrs. Li was not aware such aid existed, nor was she aware that Chinese banks had offered loans to needy students since 2000.

There are approximately 13.5 million university students in China of which 263,000, or 19%, are from poor families.

In the 80s the government made financial aid available for only three categories of students: gifted students, those specializing in selected degree subjects (like agriculture) and students willing to work in remote areas. It also offered aid at teacher training colleges on condition that graduates worked in a state school for 5 years in order to pay off the loan.

In addition to the above, the government must now expand and publicize the bank loan and financial aid scheme. In order to ensure that all money is repaid, the government could perhaps insist that recipients of student aid report to a government labour office after graduation and work in an assigned government job for a few years in order repay the loan. Needy students must have a lifeline to financial aid in order to prevent further tragedies.

The Discussion: 23 Comments

Chirst, education in the US is through the roof too!

An estimate in the NY Times business section today put the likely cost of a 4-year private college education in 18 years at $500,000+!!!

Never have children!

September 24, 2005 @ 8:40 pm | Comment

The mother had an obsessive mental disorder, and her suicide screwed up her daughter’s life far more than any college admissions problem.

Although it is sad to read about young people not being able to fulfill their educational dreams, it is possible, and indeed quite common, to have a fulfilling, meaningful life without having gone to medical school.

Also, given the choice of a system where only well-connected Party members with the “correct” family background go to university (which is what it was before), and the current system where qualified students with the means to pay modest tuition go, I’d prefer the current system.

September 24, 2005 @ 9:11 pm | Comment

I broadly agree boo and thanks for making the point.

Although the present education system which, as you point out, has been changed from government cadres sending their children to, especially the top, universities to the open but fee-based system, it’s still far from perfect and requires govt attention.

As I said, even if they based loans on a condition of requiring each graduate must work for the state for a number of years that is better than the present system which simply does not encompass all the children from modest backgrounds.

I was aware of the mental illness of Mrs. Li. She already indebted herself covering her husbands brain disease medical costs – I suspect (but don’t know) that she neglected her own condition in the process. However, I stress, this is only a guess.

September 24, 2005 @ 9:22 pm | Comment

Also, I’m a graduate of People’s University of China – in 1992 practically ALL the students were the sons and daughters of cadres. Mind you Renda is a bit of a special case as it was established specifically to teach socialist subjects.

I’ve also worked right alongside colleauges from the countryside. One guy in particular – Henry – was born in Henan. His parents are illiterate and don’t speak Mandarin. Apart from working in the fields they know no other life.

He reached university via the govt’s ‘gifted student’ scheme. The guy got straight ‘A’s all through school. When I last saw him he was earning 40,000+ yuan a month in my former company…and he hadn’t even hit 30 years of age!

He sent his parents money that (according to him) they didn’t know what to do with!

No doubt about it, there are success stories. I’d just like to see more that’s all.

September 24, 2005 @ 9:28 pm | Comment

It sounds like there are already programs for gifted students, and tweaking these programs would be nice, but I hesitate to recommend a loan program. I’m afraid that if a system of secured loans is implemented, you might end up with a US-style system where costs for everyone go through the roof. Third-party billing does that.

September 24, 2005 @ 10:23 pm | Comment

“The deceased, Mrs. Li Fenxiang, had supported her paralyzed husband, his mother and her two daughters since 2002.”

While I have every bit of sympathy for those who wish to go to university and don’t have the financial means, and while I have great sympathy for this family, I think what this woman did is atrocious. She killed herself….now what is her family supposed to do? Shame is one thing. Leaving your loved ones without support when they need it is another.

This thread could go hand and hand with a thread on suicide in China. I don’t have an article proposed or anything, but in the article above, the suicide example disturbs me far more than the education issue.

September 24, 2005 @ 10:34 pm | Comment

I’d rather remove parents from the equation entirely by encouraging students to work in the real world for a year or two to save their own tuition before going. That’s what I did, and it gave me an appreciation for the school, for money, etc. that many other students didn’t have. Parental guilt is gone too.

Also, if you put people out in the real world first, probably a large chunk of them will (correctly) decide that university isn’t for them.

September 24, 2005 @ 10:39 pm | Comment


I do not think the post is advocating an extension of the existing gifted student scheme, it is calling for the financial aid scheme to be given better publicity by local authorites and the the bank loans to be made more wirdely available.


We have all at one time or another felt despair, felt without hope. For some people it is too much to take for others the circumstances are too severe to take. Do not condemn the woman for her suicide. We were not there, we can only guess what she went through to make her decide to leave her family.

September 24, 2005 @ 11:27 pm | Comment

LOL boo, “only well-connected Party members with the “correct” family background go to university”, how did you get that idea?

I would agree if it meaned they get a much better chance of getting to TOP universities in China.

It is sad tuition skyrocketed in recently years. When I was in College in China, I paid almost nothing (I think it was about $40 a year for tuition and books), I guess you could blame the market reform for it too. When I first got to US, I was shocked by the $60 tag for a textbook.

September 25, 2005 @ 12:01 am | Comment

There is another superb and equally distressing post today about college educations in China and how the cost is detroying poor families. If you read this post, you will definitely be thinking about for hours afterwards.

September 25, 2005 @ 1:06 am | Comment

Richard, that zoneuropa story about the Gansu girl who tried to kill herself was in one of the links in this post! The Shanghai Daily link I think it was. Are you not reading the links in your own posts!? 😉

This is an awful story and the article says that it is not unique! It is a good thing that this has made it into the mainland media channels and overseas. The govt might be quicker to act.

September 25, 2005 @ 2:42 am | Comment

I believe China should subsidize tuition. I live in the Netherlands, and they have a wonderful system here. All children upto 18 years get free education. These children also get monthly financial support from the state. When you go to college, you get loans. The first 4 years are a gift when you actually graduate. You can get loans for another 4 years, but then you have to pay low-interest back. The size of the loan depends on the income of your parents. If you have poor parents, then you get more money. This system offers chances for everyone, whether they be poor or rich. If you are smart and capable enough to go to college, then you can go to college. I know this system would be very difficult to implement for a big and very populous country as China. But the European style welfare state is a great model for China, because it works there.

September 25, 2005 @ 4:24 am | Comment

Sounds almost exactly like the system in the UK ZHJ. It works very well there as well and I should know.


Brians right, I’m not advocating any tweaking of the existing ‘gifted students’ etc system. All I’m saying is that the existing system of grants and loans to poorer students should be made known to all.

The loan system should also be made available to all – even if it means agreeing to work for the govt for a number of years to pay back the money.

September 25, 2005 @ 4:50 am | Comment

As regards any possible expansion of the bank loan system, the biggest worry would be mass non-repayment. From my working life in China I know that non-repayment of anything is a major problem here and also, people can easily disappear. There’s an entire underclass of people running about China that can never go home because they owe money to local loan sharks.

September 25, 2005 @ 4:53 am | Comment

A further point, China’s government has expanded the number of students in higher education a great deal in the last decade. This breakneck speed has only increased the already big problem of student financing. China’s priorites are the numbers of students in higher education not the care and accessability of the finance system for rural students. Things are happening too quickly and the government cannot keep up.

September 25, 2005 @ 5:46 am | Comment

Daniel, thanks for pointing out my redundancy. My excuse: it wasn’t my post it was Martyn’s and, the truth is for the past two days I have NOT been clicking all the links — I simply haven’t had the time. I just got home broadband yesterday.

September 25, 2005 @ 6:22 am | Comment

As I believe we’ve discussed here before, because of the opening of so many private colleges, China is also perversely suffering from an oversupply of college graduates.

The result is a small but growing class of idle urban youth who cannot find jobs with salaries commensurate with their expectations, and unwilling to accept jobs with salaries at the level of non-grads.

It’s a hard time for Chinese college students these days – expensive tuitions, difficult admission exams, dubious quality of some private colleges, intense competition upon graduation.

September 25, 2005 @ 8:07 am | Comment

dont’ forget that the only reason why there are fewer daughters and sons of cadres in chinese schools is because the cadres make MORE Money now and ship their kids abroad all the while trumpeting the benefits of the chinese universities…

we all know corruption hasn’t gone away since the economic reforms, it has only gotten worse. why would we think it didn’t extend to education?

September 25, 2005 @ 8:58 am | Comment

Being a high ranking official and making more money is not strange. If you got the money and the resources, why not send your only precious child overseas to study? I don’t think there is a correlation with corruption here. It is unrealistic to have everyone earn the same amount of money. Also a society cannot be equal, although some try to make it more even. We can’t be equally rich, but we can be equally poor, as it was the case in China’s Maoist period.

September 25, 2005 @ 3:56 pm | Comment

Shanghai slim makes a good point about graduate job seekers. The increase in student numbers have made them 2-a-penny in china. Now they are lucky just to find a job, any job. Universities almost force new grads to register with local employment bureaus, normally for a high fee, this keeps new grads out of the official unemployment figures.

September 25, 2005 @ 7:23 pm | Comment

Those rightist theoretican who had suggested this educational reform to the government should be jailed. However they are still very active now. What a shame!

September 25, 2005 @ 10:46 pm | Comment

education site

University of Washington student Mike Baker writes:”We live in fictitious times,” Michael Moore proclaimed while accepting his 2002 Oscar for best documentary

October 6, 2005 @ 7:44 am | Comment

Things are grossly overstated in your article: 263000 poor students from a total of 13.5 million is almost 2%, and not 19% as your article states. Thank goodness the author isn’t a tax collector.

July 28, 2006 @ 12:53 pm | Comment

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