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Chen Yukun - Education Reform in China: Challenges and Responses

Professor Chen Yukun, Director, NTCSSP MOE, Shanghai, P.R. China

Click here to download the paper (28Kb pdf file).

Click here to download the PowerPoint presentation (281Kb pdf file).

  • Professor Chen gave a background to the economic development in China - rapid development in recent years. But there are a number of difficulties and challenges.
  • First point relates to “Made in China” and “Invented in China”. The first refers to the large number of cheap products that we make and send all over the world. 70% of shoes worn around the world are made in China. But these cheap products are now in some crisis. Sustainable development requires us to have some home-grown talent.
  • Second point – China is a large country with a huge population and few resources apart from human resources (1/5 of the world’s population). But the quality of the human resources needs improvement – no one has won a Nobel Prize yet. In addition to this is the appreciation and depreciation of the currency. 2 years ago – $US1 = 8.3Y; now $US1 = 7Y. On the international stage, the Yuan has depreciated, but in China it has appreciated. The major problem is inflation; it is the highest in history now. CPI has exceeded 8% growth this year. The government is trying to control the CPI and inflation below 4%, but that is very difficult. Foreign trade had been affected by the changes in the Yuan.
  • China relies on 3 things: foreign trade (exporting cheap products); investment (e.g. roads, railways); imports of petroleum/oil (nearly 40% of our requirements).
  • The oil price increasing rapidly. Inflation is directly connected with oil prices. So the government is having problems controlling inflation.
  • The mortgage crisis in the USA is also affecting the economy.
  • Many social problems result.
  • Professor Chen then gave some examples of the how GDP of Latin American countries dropped in early 2000s when they were using their own cheap labour to produce cheap export goods. There was no raising of standards of the workforce. This shows that China needs to use qualified people to grow the economy.
  • Major contradictions of China’s education: fundamental feature – “transformation from absolute poverty to relative poverty.” We do not have absolute poverty in China. Teaching facilities are “adequate.” But some years ago, they were not adequate for running a school. Teachers’ salary was not paid highly enough “in full”; they now are paid in full.
  • The social status of teachers was low, e.g. Shanghai teacher’s salary = 80% of average civil servant’s salary in Shanghai. This did not meet the government’s expectations.
  • Social structure in China – there are some problems in rural education in China.
  • The changes in the last 20 years have been great, in both expectations and aspirations.
  • Now they have a decent basic standard of living as teachers and students, they can move forward to a higher level of achievement and social status.
  • Same problems apply to the students. They are now hoping to get a good enough job to improve their social position. That is why education is so popular in China. A direct outcome of education examinations is that they have too much homework to do. Governments have not been able to solve the problem of too much homework and study. In some rural schools and boarding schools, children study from 6am to midnight, 12 to 13 hours per day (with meal times and some exercise). Some have lost interest in learning. New problems with psychological problems. Normal development is being affected. Students become machines at taking examinations. And in terms of originality and creativity, there are many problems, even though our students would beat US and UK in exams (“over-learning”). That won’t help in overall development – e.g. personality.
  • Another problem. Compulsory education in rural areas is a focus of the government because most children come from rural areas and should receive their education in their own areas. The talent of rural children will determine future Chinese development. China needs more quantity and more quality of education in rural areas.
  • Some statistics: In 1990, universities had 6.6 million students; in 2008 they have 25 million students. This is the largest number in the world. China is expanding both university and senior high school education. 10 years ago, senior high schools had 11 million students; they now have 40 million students. The government wants senior high schools to have 48 million students in the next few years.
  • The Chinese government is now aware of the importance of the quality of education, so they are now doing some things to help with that.
  • China should achieve the aim that 9 years of education is compulsory in rural areas. This is a major government focus and a high priority. Adopted measures include:
    • high investment/spending. The central government is taking the responsibility for rural education. So now there will be free education for rural children and free school meals in rural areas;
    • improve the teacher quality in rural areas;
    • free university education for future teachers in six of the Normal universities. Students contract to teach for 2 years in rural or low socio-economic areas after they graduate as teachers and then stay in education for another 8 years.
    • There is also a focus on staff development in rural areas. A major network for teacher training is being established, with several levels – national, regional, municipal. This centre is part of that, as well as being for Principals. All teachers are required to be trained once (for 240 hours in various subjects) every 5 years.
  • Vocational education is also a focus for the government. To overcome the “Made in China,” Chinese industries need to develop their own products. Of the 8 million new senior high school students each year, 7 million will be in vocational training schools. By 2020, number of students in vocational education will reach 8 million. Government wants those numbers to stay equal – senior vs vocational.
  • There are also policies for the improvement of the quality of higher education.
  • Curriculum reform – best practice in student development. The aim is for the student to learn actively and positively, with significant interaction between the student and the teacher. Also more originality of practice.
  • There is a focus on equivalent development of rural education in the different regions. The government wants to make the compulsory education in rural areas to be the symbol of social justice. Unequal incomes between city and rural lead to many social problems. Need equivalent teaching facilities and teacher quality. Te government has spent a lot to improve teaching facilities. Improving the quality of the teachers is the best way to improve education, so programs have been set up for teacher and principal exchange across regions. Teachers from some highly performing schools will be sent to some low performing schools to help improve the whole school. But there are many problems with teacher exchange, so the we are evaluating the outcomes from the programs. Focus only on compulsory years so far, not senior or vocational education.
  • National entrance examination to university – we are reforming some practices now. We currently have a single national exam – 3 days nationally. It is a tremendous phenomenon. Millions of students are escorted by their parents to the exam room. No cars can blow their horns when they are passing by the rooms. Huge catering services just to serve the examination rooms. 1 test paper determines the future of millions of people. So we have reformed the examination subjects. We need more time to research the complex problem.
  • Personnel reform is also a problem. “No time to talk about that today.” But we have achieved a lot. The quality of our human resources has improved a lot. Many international companies are now setting up in China because of the reliable workforce and the talent.
  • We have achieved much from moving away from “Made in China” products - high tech production and exports are increasing. In 2000-2007 there was a 38% improvement to $US 300 billion.
  • International exchange programs have a number of problems. 1978 – 2007 = numbers have grown to 1.2 million students who study overseas, all over the world in universities. This has helped China’s development. 320,000 have come back to serve China, and they have made major contributions to that development. The problem is that only 25% of the total number have come back. But the government realises the importance of internationalism and the need to be part of the global workforce. The government did not close the doors to the outside, but they are putting in place some measures to stop the drain. From 2006 to 2007, number of students overseas grew by 10%; now 7.94% of the total number of university students.
  • International Cooperation Exchange Program – need to learn from each other to help each other develop. More partnerships in the future.




  • Overlearning and resulting effects on wellbeing – how to get a balance in their lives?
  • A great challenge. Overlearning = useless knowledge because it is not used or applied today or tomorrow. Some content in maths is like that – you will learn it but never use it in your career. Have to suffer to learn – sacrifice your childhood. 22 years to get a PhD; 16 years to get a degree.


  • Can they make a good salary if they go into vocational education?
  • We need to pay more attention to this field. Talent in this area is greatly in need. The salary should be higher for graduates in vocational education than for regular high school graduates, but lower than for university graduates.


  • China has a long and deep cultural history. Has the influence of internet and globalization caused problems with getting the balance right?
  • We have had our own culture for many centuries. We are willing to become part of the world economic and cultural community. We hope that people will share learnings from each other. China may have a “culture shock” in the process of globalization. We must keep our own strength in our culture and values. The government has made a number of measures – borrowed things and contextualized them for China.


  • Do you have IB or other programs like that?
  • We are willing to look to introduce them. It is a major responsibility of the NTCSSP and its work with international colleagues to widen our learning. We send Principals overseas each year, to USA, UK, Australia, and Europe. And we are bringing more teachers to visit China as well.


  • Professional development for school leaders?
  • This is a challenging topic. The government has a focus on it. They produced a document in 1999 to develop an Action Plan. Also in the 2003 and 2007 plans. Diversified methods to implement
    • Theoretical study = teachers and principals study in universities.
    • Probation / shadowing principal scheme + school based management training + international placement.
    • New model includes follow-up training. University teachers and professors go into the school and work with the staff and principal on staff development and management issues.

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