Rural education reform not that easy

NOTE: This is the unedited version of the article that I submitted to the Shenzhen Daily, and published on February 5th, 2018.

While I applaud Jack Ma’s entrance into the debate on education reform, I have sincere doubts about his solution of merging rural schools to create publicly funded boarding schools.

As a West Australian, I am very familiar with the idea of boarding schools for children in rural areas. The issue of funding education for small towns and villages is a problem in every country, not just China. There are larger issues at play here – the movement of people from rural people into urban areas for work, which results in a shift of tax revenue from rural areas to urban areas, as well as the issue of left-behind children.

The movement of people from low-paying rural areas to high-paying urban areas has been well-established for a long time, and I do not see this problem ending anytime soon. What is not so clear is the funding of essential government services around the country, based on citizen’s hukous.

As I understand it, resources are allocated based on the location of tax receipts, not on where the hukous are. As a result, urban areas have more resources allocated to them, and rural areas have fewer resources allocated to them, compared to the number of people living in the cities, towns and villages. It also does not help that there are more taxpayers in cities.

The exacerbation of inequality comes from the higher wages offered in large cities, and the lack of reasonably priced welfare services for those that do not hold local hukou. For example, a private middle school for migrant children in Shenzhen can cost at least 15,000 RMB per year – a substantial amount of money for parents who are both working full time to provide for themselves, let alone their children.

Essentially, the issue is all about the allocation of resources, which is a tough enough job for any government. With a significant proportion of the Chinese population living in large metropolises along the south and east coasts, the government will allocate more resources to gain the maximum benefit.

While I laud Jack Ma and his efforts to encourage entrepreneurs to spend money on rural education, the question must be asked – to what end? Ultimately, money will flow back to these rural areas if people lived there. People are leaving these rural areas because there are no jobs and not enough opportunities. Medium to high-income job creation would slow, or even stop, the movement of people to large urban areas, and would see an increase in government resources spent in these areas.

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