The Hidden Costs of Education in China
The Hidden Costs of Education in China

“Education shouldn’t be compromised by poverty,” as an old Chinese saying goes.

Peasants and intellectuals alike, Chinese parents have been known as “slaves to their children,” and a large portion of their income goes into schooling for their children, which they have deemed is the only way out of poverty. Yet their efforts to help their children gain a better life are undermined by the way Chinese schools find a multitude of ways to place extra charges on students.  

China has made the compulsory nine-year education tuition-free since 2008, and students pay a relatively low extra fee per semester (around US$ 50 for elementary school). Yet what Chinese parents actually pay stretches far beyond it—in addition to after-school lessons, some schools make money off of services, such as water usage.

A vocational college in China has set a limit on how much water students can use, declaring it means to cultivate students’ awareness of the need to conserve water. Students are handed a card with a 3-ton water quota, which they need to swipe every time they use the restroom, washing up, and do the laundry. Going over the limit incurs an additional charge.

The news has provoked thousands of responses from Weibo users.

“Maybe there will be more students not flushing the toilet,” one netizen wrote.

“Imagine six people waiting in line in the morning to swipe cards and get water for washing up…Shall we push back the time for class?” wrote another.

“On the one hand, they economize on water usage; on the other hand, they also collect a fee in disguise. This skill is right in place.”

A report on the Chinese website Sohu found that parents spend 250,000 ($37,430) to nearly 500,000 yuan ($74,860) on a child’s education and development. The World Bank estimates the average annual income in China to be around $7,925 (52,940 yuan) in 2016. In other words, parents are spending the equivalent of between 5 and 10 years annual income on a child’s education.

In 2003 China’s Ministry of Education responded to parents’ complaints by classifying make-up lessons, as well as enforced magazine subscriptions, and school uniforms and stationery to be arbitrary charges. Possibly due to the pressure, schools announced the charges are an individual choice.

The charges range from significant expenses to petty ones. If a child wants to attend a school other than the one he or she was assigned to, the cost could be 10,000 yuan ($1,497) for three years.

If a child takes a scheduled nap during lunch time, the parent may get a charge of 1 yuan ($.15) per day, 2.5 yuan a day for a child who uses a bed.

And all the charges, big and small, add up.

In a middle school in Henan Province, students were paying for dish cleaning services, which the school claimed to be “voluntary” and approved by the education department.

According to the Paper, the No. 2 Middle School of Anyang County, a provincial model school, collected 75 yuan from each boarding student in every academic year. The fee even applied to some day students who did not eat at school.

“School’s five year plan: Implement step by step charges from dining hall admission, dining table, cuisine development, trash disposal, etc,” a web user commented.

“In our high school those who did not board there also were required to pay for boarding fees,” another user wrote.

The No.2 middle school has not been the only case. In September 2012, No. 5 Middle School of Wu’an in Hebei Province was criticized for charging students who dined at school dish cleaning fees, even if they brought tableware of their own. The school returned collected fees after the case was publicized.

An elementary school in north-central China’s Shanxi Province charged the graduating pupils 243 yuan for graduation certificate, printing, framed graduation photo, audio, and other miscellaneous fees. The total fees from the student body of 700 students amounted to 170,000 yuan ($25,452) in total.

He Zhanyi, the school’s chairman of the board, defended the extra fees.

“The school is self-supporting and cannot manage to feed [teaching and administrative staff]. We have to give people wages after all,” he told Sanjin City News.   

The Chinese parents seem to be hopeless in dealing with the arbitrary charges. Ms. Liu, who worked at a university in Jilin Province, told the state-run Xinhua news agency that she initially refused to pay for the “voluntary” after-school classes but eventually relented, after she realized that the teacher only announced homework during the lessons.

“There were over 50 kids in class, and most of them paid for staying after school to study…The next day when everyone handed in the homework and your kid couldn’t, you feel wronged yet still get punished, but how can you complain—your kid is studying here.” Liu said. “You just have to pay.”

China’s National Auditing Office estimated that education sectors and schools in 19 cities made 502 million yuan ($75 million) from 2006 to 2007 through the choice of school (if a parent decides to send their child to other than the school they are placed at, there is an extra charge), make-up lessons, and other charges that violated the regulations on the books, according to the online version of the state-run newspaper People’s Daily.

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