|Young students enjoy lunch at their school in Nedong County, Tibet, provided as part of a subsidy scheme covering food, board and tuition fees for rural children (XINHUA)
Kelsang Udrup still clearly remembers that day in 1999 when he arrived to work as principal of the Nagarze County Elementary School. Located in the south of the Tibet Autonomous Region, the county has the highest altitude in Shannan Prefecture. The amount of oxygen in the rarified air is half that at sea level, making life tough for newcomers. Seeing his school for the first time, Kelsang Udrup had his breath taken away, literally. The colorless, shabby, one-story building seemed forlorn. There were no adornments, trees or even grass. Worst of all, the laughter of children was absent as well.
"[Today] schools are totally different, thanks to the Central Government's pro-student policies in Tibet," Kelsang Udrup, now the principal of No.1 Elementary School in Shannan Prefecture, told ChinAfrica . Having worked at different schools in Tibet for 16 years, Kelsang Udrup marvels at the great improvement in school facilities and faculty quality.
Besides renovated classrooms and newly equipped modern teaching facilities, students’ living necessities like bathrooms and a vegetable greenhouse have all been established. And laughter now fills the halls.
The improvement he witnessed in Nagarze epitomizes education development in the autonomous region. Since 1985, the government has been running a subsidy scheme covering food and boarding expenses as well as tuition fees for students from rural families during the nine-year compulsory education period.
The subsidy has been raised 14 times in recent years. In 2011, preschool and senior middle school students were included in the scheme. From the fall semester of 2012, students from urban families began enjoying 15 years of free education.
According to the Tibet Autonomous Regional Department of Education, the autonomous region had 608,500 students and 1,696 schools at all levels by the end of 2014. About 419 million yuan ($65.5 million) was invested by the regional government in 15 years’ free education and another 150 million yuan ($23.5 million) for the subsidy scheme, benefiting 570,000 and 525,000 students, respectively. Every rural student gets an average annual subsidy of 3,000 yuan ($469).
Currently, China has a nine-year compulsory and free education policy in most provinces and autonomous regions. Tibet is one of the few regions where students get 15 years’ free education.
Bridging the gap
"The future of our nation and the improvement of people's quality depend on the advancement of education," said Cai Shoukuan, a senior official from Shannan Prefecture Education Bureau. "[Education] is also vital in order to increase farmers’ and herdsmen’s incomes."
Tibet's pro-student policies are set to narrow the education gap between its rural and urban areas as well as the gap with other provinces.
"[The policies] lessen farmers’ and herdsmen’s burdens and encourage them to send their children to school," Cai added.
In Tibet's rural areas, elementary school classes are mainly taught in Tibetan so that students find the lessons easier to master. "Textbooks of subjects like math and science and their workbooks are in Tibetan," said Cai.
There are Chinese classes as well. "It is necessary to learn the official language. I can [then] communicate with others on any occasion," Yangzom, a 15-year-old Tibetan girl, told ChinAfrica . A student from Jiedexiu Town in Shannan Prefecture, she now studies at the Chanba No.1 Middle School in Xi’an, capital of northwest China’s Shaanxi Province.
Yangzom understands that knowing Mandarin allows her access to more opportunities. Her choice stands for another way of receiving a better education, studying at schools in better developed areas in China.
According to Tibet Autonomous Regional Department of Education, about 18,000 Tibetans are currently studying in 130 Tibetan classes or schools in major cities outside Tibet, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an and Chongqing. Since Tibetan students started attending these schools from 1985, 32,000 talents have been nurtured, half of whom were university graduates.
The enrollment policies are especially intended to benefit students from farmers' and herdsmen's families. "Seventy percent of the junior middle school students are from rural areas. The percentage for senior middle schools is 50.
With improved education and student-oriented policies, Tibetan youth are enjoying a much better life. According to the Tibet Autonomous Regional Department of Education, the higher education enrollment rate in Tibet reached 28 percent in 2014, with 33,474 Tibetans attending universities and another 1,428 pursuing master’s degrees.
Although the enrollment figure was about 10 percentage points lower than the national level, basically, almost every Tibetan university graduate has found a satisfying job, said Wu Yingjie, Deputy Secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Regional Committee of the Communist Party of China. The average employment rate of university graduates from 2012 to 2014 was close to 99 percent.
Tashi Yangzom recently graduated from Tibet University. The 21-year-old recently passed the exam and is now qualified to work in the county hospital in her hometown in Nagqu Prefecture. "Education changed my life and helped me realize my long-cherished dream of being a doctor," she said, adding she was luckier than her elder sister, who did not have the chance to attend university. "She is 13 years older than me. At that time, my parents were not well aware of the importance of education," she explained.
Kelsang Udrup also witnessed the change: "Our main job was to ensure enrollments. Teachers could be seen frequently visiting herdsmen’s houses and persuading them to send their children to school," he said of the situation around 1999.
"[Today] people's mindsets have changed. Instead of [just any] school, they want their children to attend good schools. Our main job has also changed accordingly to improve the quality of teaching," he added.
To maintain a highly efficient faculty, Tibet subsidizes teachers in remote rural areas with an average monthly subsidy of 1,000 yuan ($156). "With this, I earn a salary of 6,200 yuan ($970) per month," said Solang Peldon, a math teacher at Nierong County, Nagqu Prefecture.
The average annual income of urban citizens working in the public sector was 56,339 yuan ($8,816) in 2014, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics in June. Solang Peldon earns about 18,000 yuan ($2,816) more than this average.
Apart from improved income, teachers receive more training opportunities. Since 2011, 37,700 teachers of all subjects at schools of all levels in Tibet have received training at Tibetan and other key national universities.
"Coming up with new educational ideas is crucial to enhance the quality of the faculty," said Kelsang Udrup, noting that teachers should avoid trying to make students cram.
He is now working to establish a regular exchange mechanism with Beijing Normal University, a key university under the Ministry of Education, so that more teachers in his school can receive additional training.
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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