2022 Enlargement Package: European Commission Assesses Reforms in the Western Balkans and Turkey, Recommends Candidate Status for Bosnia and Herzegovina

Written by Joseph Kamanga

The European Commission has adopted its 2022 Enlargement Package, which evaluates the progress made by the Western Balkans and Turkey on their path toward EU membership. The Commission recommends granting candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina, contingent upon their implementation of measures to strengthen democracy, uphold the rule of law, combat corruption, and safeguard media freedom.

State of the EU: MEPs debate about the EU’s most immediate challenges. Photo by European Parliament

The Commission highlights the significance of EU enlargement as a long-term investment in peace and stability. Montenegro needs to address rule of law concerns, while Serbia should establish a government committed to EU reforms. Albania and North Macedonia must intensify their efforts in upholding the rule of law, combating corruption, and fighting organized crime.

Kosovo should enhance democracy and combat corruption, while Serbia and Kosovo are expected to engage in constructive dialogue to normalize their relations. Turkey needs to address concerns regarding democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental rights, while respecting the sovereignty of EU member states.

The Council will now assess the Commission’s recommendations and decide on the subsequent actions to be taken.

Educational Challenges in the Philippines

Written by Niyang Bai

The Philippines, a developing country in Southeast Asia with a population of over 100 million people, has a long history of colonization, with Spain being the first colonial power to arrive in the country in 1521. The Spanish colonial period lasted for over 300 years, during which the country’s education system was heavily influenced by the Catholic Church. The Spanish government established schools that primarily catered to the Spanish elite, and education was mainly focused on religious instruction.

After the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Philippines was ceded to the United States. The American colonial period brought significant changes to the country’s education system, with the government introducing a public school system that aimed to provide education to all Filipinos. The American government established public schools that followed an English-language curriculum, which aimed to prepare Filipinos for the workforce and eventually lead to their assimilation into American society.

The Philippine education system underwent further changes after the country gained independence in 1946. The government implemented reforms that aimed to make education accessible to all Filipinos, regardless of their socioeconomic status. The 1987 Philippine Constitution states that “the State shall protect and promote the right of all citizens to quality education at all levels and shall take appropriate steps to make such education accessible to all.”

Despite efforts to make education a key priority in the country since independence in 1946, the Philippine education system continues to face significant challenges that prevent many Filipinos from accessing education.

Ongoing class of Teacher Mercedita Guese at Lawang Bato Elementary School with her students using notebooks provided by the city government and worktexts developed by Department of Education, local school board and Synergeia Foundation. Photo by Congwingatchalian


Poverty has long been a pervasive and intractable challenge in the Philippines, and education remains one of the most critical casualties of this social malady. The Philippine Statistics Authority has reported that approximately 16.7 million Filipinos live below the poverty line, with many of them struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis. Consequently, education becomes an unaffordable luxury for many families, especially those living in the most impoverished communities. The inability to send their children to school forces them to work instead, perpetuating the cycle of poverty for generations.

In recent years, the Philippine government has launched several initiatives aimed at addressing the problem of poverty and its impact on education. One such program is the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), which provides cash transfers to poor families to help them meet their basic needs, including education expenses such as school supplies, uniforms, and transportation costs. The program has been successful in increasing school enrollment and reducing dropout rates in poor communities across the country.

The 4Ps program has been the subject of much research, and several studies have shown its effectiveness in improving access to education for impoverished families. For instance, a study by Montilla et.al. (2019) found that the program had a positive impact on school participation, with a significant increase in the number of children enrolled in school. The study also noted that the program had helped to reduce dropout rates, particularly among girls.

Another study by Howlett et.al. (2018) looked at the impact of the 4Ps program on the education outcomes of children living in poor communities. The study found that the program had a positive effect on both school enrollment and attendance, with children from beneficiary households having higher rates of school attendance than their counterparts from non-beneficiary households. The study also showed that the program had a significant impact on children’s nutritional status, as it helped families to afford healthier food options.

Despite the success of the 4Ps program, however, some experts argue that cash transfers alone are not enough to address the root causes of poverty. They emphasize the need for more comprehensive poverty reduction strategies, such as creating more job opportunities and improving social services. According to a study by Ibon Foundation (2019), poverty reduction in the Philippines requires a multi-dimensional approach that includes investment in education, healthcare, and social services, as well as policies that support job creation and income growth.

One example of a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy is the Sustainable Livelihood Program (SLP), which is implemented by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). The SLP aims to provide sustainable livelihood opportunities to poor households, enabling them to increase their income and improve their standard of living. The program offers various forms of assistance, including skills training, micro-enterprise development, and access to credit facilities.

A study by the International Labor Organization (ILO) (2018) found that the SLP had a positive impact on poverty reduction and employment creation in the Philippines. The study noted that the program had helped to increase household income, improve food security, and reduce the incidence of child labor in beneficiary households. The study also highlighted the importance of partnership between the government and the private sector in creating sustainable livelihood opportunities.

Combined with the above, it is easy to see that poverty remains a major obstacle to education in the Philippines, with millions of families struggling to afford basic necessities, let alone the cost of education. While cash transfer programs such as the 4Ps have proven effective in increasing school enrollment and reducing dropout rates, they are not enough to address the root causes of poverty. To achieve sustainable poverty reduction, a more comprehensive approach is needed, which includes strategies to create more job opportunities, improve social services, and support education and skills development. By addressing poverty in a multi-dimensional manner, the country can ensure that all its citizens have equal an equal right to education.

Ongoing armed conflicts

The ongoing armed conflict in some parts of the Philippines has created many challenges in the education sector. In particular, the situation has greatly impacted the lives of many children, making it difficult for them to continue their studies. With schools being forced to close and students being displaced, the government has recognized the need for alternative education systems that can provide access to education to those who have been affected by the conflict.

One of the measures implemented by the government to address this issue is the Alternative Learning System (ALS). The ALS is a non-formal education system designed to provide basic education and skills training to out-of-school youth and adults who have not completed their primary or secondary education. The program is designed to reach marginalized communities, including those affected by armed conflict, who may not have access to traditional formal education.

The ALS program has been successful in providing educational opportunities to those who have been affected by the armed conflict. For example, in 2021, the ALS program reached over 900,000 learners, providing them with access to basic education and skills training. Furthermore, the program has also been successful in improving the literacy rate in the Philippines, particularly in areas affected by the conflict.

One of the reasons why the ALS program has been successful is that it has been able to adapt to the unique challenges faced by learners in conflict-affected areas. For example, the program has developed modules that are designed to be delivered in a modular format, making it easier for learners to access education even if they have to relocate due to conflict.

In addition to the ALS program, there are also other initiatives that have been implemented to address the education challenges faced by those affected by the armed conflict in the Philippines. For example, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has implemented a program that aims to improve access to quality education for children affected by the conflict. This program includes initiatives such as providing temporary learning spaces, training teachers, and providing learning materials to students.

The UNICEF program has been successful in improving access to education for children affected by the conflict. For example, in 2021, the program provided temporary learning spaces to over 18,000 learners, enabling them to continue their studies despite the conflict.

Moreover, international organizations such as the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and the World Bank have also recognized the importance of education in conflict-affected areas. These organizations have provided funding for education programs in the Philippines, enabling the government to improve access to education and skills training for those affected by the conflict.

For instance, the GPE provided a grant of $20.9 million to the Philippines in 2019 to support the implementation of its education sector plan. The grant aims to improve access to quality education for all, including those affected by the conflict.

Additionally, the World Bank has also provided funding to support the education sector in the Philippines. In 2020, the World Bank approved a $300 million loan to support the government’s efforts to improve the quality of education and increase access to education for all, including those affected by the conflict.

In conclusion, the armed conflict in some parts of the Philippines has greatly impacted the education sector, making it challenging for children to continue their studies. The government has implemented the Alternative Learning System, which provides non-formal education to out-of-school youth, including those affected by armed conflict. The ALS program aims to provide marginalized communities with access to education and skills training, helping them to rebuild their lives and communities. Additionally, international organizations such as UNICEF, GPE, and the World Bank have also recognized the importance of education in conflict-affected areas and have provided funding to support education programs in the Philippines. These initiatives are critical in providing educational opportunities to those affected by the conflict, enabling them to rebuild their lives and communities.

Children in school uniforms attend a class. Photo by Ron Lach.

Lack of resources and infrastructure

Another important issue facing the education system in the Philippines is the lack of resources and infrastructure in many schools, especially in rural areas. This challenge is widespread and affects a significant number of schools in the country.

According to a report by the Department of Education, around 5,000 schools in the Philippines have no access to electricity, while 10,000 have no access to potable water. This lack of basic amenities puts students and teachers at a significant disadvantage, affecting the quality of education they receive. In addition, many schools lack adequate classrooms, textbooks, and teaching materials, making it challenging for students to learn effectively. This challenge is not only limited to rural areas but is also present in urban areas.

The lack of resources and infrastructure in schools affects the quality of education that students receive. Without proper facilities, students may not be able to attend classes regularly, or they may be distracted by external factors, making it difficult for them to concentrate on their studies. The lack of textbooks and teaching materials also hinders the learning process, as students may not have access to the necessary information to understand the concepts taught in class.

To address this issue, the Philippine government has invested in infrastructure projects to improve schools’ facilities. For example, the government has constructed classrooms, provided electricity, and installed water systems in schools that lacked these amenities. In addition, the Department of Education has implemented the K-12 program, which aims to provide students with a quality education that is globally competitive. The program includes initiatives such as the provision of free textbooks, school facilities, and teacher training.

In recent years, the government has also implemented several programs aimed at improving access to education in remote areas. The above-mentioned Alternative Learning System (ALS), aiming to provide basic literacy and numeracy skills, as well as functional and life skills to its learners, for example, provides non-formal education to out-of-school youths and adults who cannot attend formal schooling. This program is vital in ensuring that every Filipino has access to basic education.

However, despite these efforts, some experts argue that the government’s efforts are insufficient to address the scale of the problem. They highlight the need for greater investment in education, particularly in rural areas, to ensure that every child has access to quality education. According to a study by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS), there is a strong correlation between education and poverty reduction. The study found that increasing access to education can lead to better employment opportunities and higher income levels, ultimately leading to poverty reduction.

Moreover, the lack of resources and infrastructure in schools is not only limited to the Philippines but is also a common problem in other developing countries. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 30 million children of primary school age are not in school, and many of those in school face similar challenges to those faced by students in the Philippines. These challenges include lack of access to basic amenities such as electricity, water, and adequate classrooms.

To conclude, the lack of resources and infrastructure in schools is a significant challenge facing education in the Philippines, particularly in rural areas. While the government has implemented several initiatives to address this issue, there is still a need for greater investment in education to ensure that every child has access to quality education. Providing access to education is vital in ensuring that every Filipino has the opportunity to reach their full potential and contribute to the development of the country.


The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly brought numerous challenges to the education system of the Philippines, affecting not only students but also teachers, parents, and educational institutions. In March 2020, the Philippine government ordered the closure of schools to curb the spread of the virus. As a result, millions of students had to shift to online or distance learning, which was a struggle for those without access to technology or reliable internet connection.

One of the major issues that the pandemic has exposed is the digital divide. The digital divide refers to the gap between those who have access to digital technologies and those who do not. In the context of education, the digital divide means that students who lack access to technology and the internet are at a disadvantage compared to those who have them. According to a survey conducted by the Department of Education in July 2020, only 64% of the students who responded had access to a smartphone, while 55% had access to a laptop or desktop computer. This means that a significant portion of the student population is left out of the digital learning experience.

To address the digital divide and the challenges posed by the pandemic, the Department of Education has implemented various distance learning programs. One of these is DepEd TV, a program that provides televised lessons to students in grades 1 to 10. DepEd TV was launched in October 2020 and is aired on free-to-air television channels. The program aims to provide alternative modes of learning for students who do not have access to the internet or digital devices. The lessons cover various subjects, such as English, Math, Science, and Filipino.

Another program that the Department of Education has implemented is DepEd Commons, an online platform that provides free access to digital resources for teachers and students. The platform contains thousands of learning materials, such as lesson plans, videos, and quizzes. Teachers can use the platform to create their own digital lessons, while students can access the materials to supplement their learning. DepEd Commons was launched in 2019 but gained more significance during the pandemic when traditional classroom teaching became challenging.

Apart from these initiatives, the government has also partnered with telecommunication companies to provide free internet access to public school teachers and students. In May 2020, the Department of Education signed a memorandum of agreement with Globe Telecom and Smart Communications to provide free internet access to public school teachers and students until the end of the year. The initiative aimed to ensure that teachers and students have access to online resources and can participate in online classes.

While these initiatives are commendable, some experts argue that the government’s response to the pandemic has been inadequate, particularly in addressing the needs of marginalized communities. According to a study by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies, only 14% of students in the poorest households have access to a computer or tablet, while 16% have access to the internet. The study also found that only 27% of students in rural areas have access to the internet, compared to 47% in urban areas. This shows that students from marginalized communities are at a greater disadvantage when it comes to online learning.

To address this issue, experts suggest that the government should provide laptops and tablets to students who lack access to technology. The Department of Education has recognized this need and has launched a laptop and tablet program for public school teachers and non-teaching personnel. Under the program, the government will provide laptops and tablets to eligible teachers and non-teaching personnel to support their work in distance learning. However, some argue that the program should be expanded to include students who lack access to technology.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the digital divide in the Philippine education system, with many students lacking access to technology and the internet. The government has implemented various initiatives, such as DepEd TV and DepEd Commons, but experts suggest that more needs to be done, particularly for marginalized communities. Providing laptops and tablets to students without access to technology is a crucial step towards creating a more equitable and inclusive learning environment.


In conclusion, the challenges facing the education sector in the Philippines are complex and multifaceted, ranging from poverty to armed conflict, lack of resources and infrastructure, and the digital divide. Addressing these challenges will require a comprehensive and multi-dimensional approach, including strategies to create more job opportunities, improve social services, and support education and skills development, as well as providing alternative learning opportunities in conflict-affected areas and investing in education infrastructure. Bridging the digital divide is also essential, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. By ensuring that all Filipinos have equal access to education, the country can unlock the full potential of its people and contribute to sustainable development. The government, supported by international organizations and the private sector, must continue to prioritize education and invest in its future.


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Educational Challenges in Chile: A society protesting for change

Written by Ana María Ocampo C.

With research and collaboration from Joan Vilalta Flo.

Students protest in Chile. Photo by Simenon.

Students, teachers, and experts all agree that the education system in Chile needs some deep changes for it to maintain its relevance and traditional position at the top of the region. Some of the pressing challenges include existing segregation, differentiated quality, and high levels of indebtedness, all of which were heightened and highlighted by the pandemic and its effects. But the how and where should be addressed to remain at the center of the heated debates about the topic in the past years.

Some context and background

To understand some of the reasons behind the current challenges and demands, a look into the past proves to be helpful. Back in the 1980s, the Chilean education system underwent a major transformation. To change the regressive and unequal access to education, as well as to promote the creation of more schools and universities to assess the high demand and increase in the number of students, the government redistributed its investments in the area.

The project also included the involvement of the private sector, which would assure better coverage in the entire country, and would offer students and their families more options to choose from. With this approach, private education institutions increased across the country, allowing the wealthiest members of society to access higher-quality education. Despite the original idea of increasing coverage, this privatization of the system proved to deepen the social and economic divides in the country, as education was now “understood as a private investment by the family of the young person”, according to Ruben Covarrubias, former president of the Universidad Mayor in Chile.

Since the economic possibilities of the general population were still a big restriction for some capable students with low income, the estate created a credit system that aimed to assure every Chilean had access to education regardless of their economic situation. Ever since, the system has also increased the number of scholarships and payment agreements, allowing students and recently graduated professionals to pay back their loans in accordance with their income levels.

These profound changes in the system gave Chile a privileged position in the Latin American context. Two decades after the implementation Professor Jose Joaquin Brunner, UNESCO expert in comparative studies of education, acknowledged that “The Chilean population has 11.6 years of schooling, against 9.4 in the rest of Latin America; 28.6 % of people complete at least one year of tertiary education compared to 15.8% in the rest of the region. Among young adults between the ages of 25 and 34, Chile can boast that 41% are professionals, compared with 39% in OECD countries, to which we belong, and less than 20% in Latin America (UNESCO).” And, comparatively speaking, Chile was one of the countries with the highest spending on education relative to the GDP, going above the OECD average.

But the situation for students and families in the country was not as picture-perfect as the numbers showed. In 2011, a student movement emerged with the purpose of taking the demand for a free and high-quality education to the center of the national agenda. The movement’s demands focused on effectively addressing the unequal access and poor quality of education in the country, as well as the indebtedness that lower- and middle-class families were forced into to access higher education.

Protests were constant in the following years, a time when the students’ movement gained strength and organization. In 2014, for instance, a group of its leaders, all under the age of 30, secured spots in Congress, creating a coalition that pushed for some of the most relevant reforms in the area. And last year, in March, one of the leaders of the movement, Gabriel Boric, was elected president of the country. He has promised to keep discussions on reforms to the system among the priorities of his government’s agenda.

Colegio Municipal Marcela Paz, La Florida, Santiago de Chile. Photo by UNESCO/Carolina Jerez

Segregation: two realities that do not meet

When asked about the main challenges that Chilean education faces, experts like Álvaro González Torres, a researcher at the Universidad Católica Silva Henríquez, point out at the general social context in the country, where strong demands for “justice, liberties and rights” are still being discussed and demanded. One of those, education, is at the heart of the protests for equality in Chilean’s recent history, including the Constitutional reform that is underway.

“It is not because we have a critical situation, compared to other countries in the South American region; the problem in Chile is beyond educational attainment”. Instead, Mr. González explains, the problem is rooted in the design of a system following a neoliberal approach: “The privatization of public education has been a major obstacle, as well as the flourishing of a cultural environment that strengthens values that are dangerous for democracy: individualism and excessive competitiveness”.

As he describes, the stronger involvement of private capital and the business mindset behind educational institutions has resulted in a segregated system. So, while in the country the coverage of primary and secondary education reaches almost 90% of the corresponding population, once inside the system differences are stark. “Students coming from lower income groups are concentrated in institutions with lower quality, while those students from the wealthiest groups can access better quality education and, in the end, have almost direct access to power”, as Álvaro González describes.

The Research Center for the Socio-educational Transformation, which Mr. González directs, points out that this segregation leads to a reinforcement of “cycles of social and opportunities inequality”, which has also been sustained by a “systemic deficiency”, where resources are not equally distributed amongst the institutions across the country. “Overall, there is an education for the rich and another education for the poor”, Mr. González concludes.

The lingering ghosts of the pandemic

This differentiated reality was made more evident during the pandemic when a large section of the population faced issues with the lack of access to technological tools and internet connectivity, proper spaces, and/or parental accompaniment, not only in rural areas but even in urban centers. Chile was one of the countries in the world where schools were closed the longest, and the effects of these measures have also been seen in the mental and physical health of the students and teachers.

The immediate reaction from the government and the institutions has been focused on promoting a return to schools, reverting the dropout rates, and increasing evaluation processes to measure basic abilities in reading, writing, and math. “For a long time in Chile, we have implemented standardized tests to measure quality of the education, and schools focused their energy on preparing students for these tests. But the pandemic put a halt on these evaluations, and schools and institutions realized that there were other abilities and areas that needed more attention”. As Álvaro González explains, the emotional and psychosocial well-being of students is now a critical point for the design and development of education reforms for the future.

Students protest with a hunger strike. Photo by Hans Peters.

Education for the new century

Students took the streets with an additional demand: the curriculums need to be updated to address the challenges and requirements of the current times. Their claims, as described by the leaders of the students´ movement, criticize the disconnection between the education system and the workplaces of the 21st Century, where they are demanded new abilities that the traditional schooling system falls short of offering.

“A current approach is that of nuclearization of curriculums, where elements like a gender perspective, citizens competencies, critical thinking, or skills for the 21st Century are included ins a transversal way. However, we have seen that not all teachers and educators have the capacities or confidence to take this to their classrooms. We have inherited a system of evaluation of teachers that hinders their innovation since the students’ results reflect on their own evaluation”, Álvaro González explains.

Some reforms, yet not enough

The current government, which has been in power for just over a year, has tried to implement a series of reforms to address both the demands already described and the challenges that came with the pandemic. However, some of these reforms have been a source of controversy.

For instance, as Mr. González explains, a system for admissions, aided by an algorithm, has been introduced to randomly assign students to schools, increasing diversity in the institutions. However, criticism from both ends of the political spectrum has not been absent, and in practice, institutions are failing to provide enough tools to successfully integrate students with lacking or deficient academic backgrounds.

Nonetheless, “The Chilean situation is not as pronounced as in other countries”, says Mr. González, who acknowledges that in the past decade, access to higher education by students in rural areas has increased at the highest rate in the continent. And, in an effort to provide contextualized education for these communities, institutions have developed specialized programs overviewed by the National Ministry of Education to secure their quality.

There are also efforts from both the public and private sectors to improve the conditions of access and permanence of indigenous communities in the country. “These past years we have seen affirmative actions that acknowledge diversity in the students. For instance, there are adapted curricula, particularly a program of intercultural and bilingual education for these communities”, but what Mr. González describes has not proven to be enough. Intercultural approaches also demand the acknowledgment of traditional knowledge as valid. And this is currently an element of debate in the constitutional process in the country, where new ideas about the future of Chile are put on the table.



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Education Challenges in China

Written by Luna A. Duran van Tijn

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ([OECD], 2016) “China has the largest education system in the world”, with almost 260 million students and over 15 million teachers in about 514,000 schools. While China prides itself in its advancements in the educational sector and has in fact paid a great deal of attention to its shortcomings, this article reveals that with such a large system come many challenges.

Setting the stage: China’s education system

Education bears great importance for the Chinese government (OECD, 2016). China has continued to invest heavily in its educational system on an absolute basis. Over the past 10 years, China has raised its educational spending by an average of 19%. With its belief that education is the foundation for national growth and modernisation, ensuring the compatibility of the system with the nation’s rate of such growth and modernisation as well as new educational demands and trends has meant continuous modifications and development in education reforms and programmes (OECD, 2016).

A particularly significant development in Chinese educational history was the Law on Compulsory Education passed in 1986, which held that all school-age children of Chinese nationality are entitled to compulsory education, and parents are responsible for registering their children in school and ensuring that they complete the required nine years of education (OECD, 2016). This law built an exhaustive system, outlining standards for schools, instructors, teaching and learning, as well as for funding education and the legal responsibilities of social sectors.  Since the legislation was changed in 2006, all students enrolled in compulsory education are now exempt from paying tuition and other fees. Moreover, according to the law’s 2015 revision, textbook prices are limited to marginal profit (OECD, 2016).

As to the specifics, China’s education system is managed by the state, with limited involvement from private companies, and continues to grow more decentralised (OECD, 2016). The Ministry of Education has recently moved away from direct control of the educational system and towards system-wide monitoring, directing educational reform through legislative initiatives, plans, financial support, informational services, policy recommendations, and administrative tools. Governments at the county level are in charge of running and providing education in schools. Most of the time, provincial governments are in charge of managing higher education institutions (OECD, 2016).

As has been previously stated, students must complete nine years of compulsory education (OECD, 2016). Figure 2 presents a chart with an overview of the organisation of China’s education system. Prior to the 1990s, secondary schools accepted students based on the results of admission exams. The government has replaced the entrance exam for secondary school with a policy of mandatory enrollment based on the area of residence (hukou) to emphasise the compulsory nature of junior secondary schools and as part of an attempt to shift the focus of education away from test scores and towards a more integrated approach to learning (OECD, 2016).

Students have the option to continue with senior secondary education after completing the compulsory education (OECD, 2016). General senior secondary, technical or specialised secondary, adult secondary, vocational secondary, and crafts schools are the five different categories of senior secondary schools in China. Prior to enrolling in senior secondary schools, students must take the Zhongkao, a public test whose results determine admission. The government assigns pupils to various senior secondary schools based on these scores. In recent years, China has made major efforts to increase enrollment in secondary vocational schools in order to satisfy the rapidly changing economic and labour demands of the nation. Despite the fact that senior secondary education is not required in China, 95% of junior secondary school graduates completed their studies there in 2014, a particularly significant figure considering it was only around 40% in 2005 (OECD, 2016).

The first ten years of the twenty-first century saw a significant increase in tertiary education in China as well (OECD, 2016). The gross enrollment ratio for postsecondary education in China increased from 21% in 2006 to 39% in 2014. Various institutions and initiatives were founded during this time, and there was a significant increase in the promotion of international collaboration and mobility. The tertiary education system become more varied as a result. Undergraduate programmes’ admissions are based on students’ college entrance examination (gaokao) scores. Admissions at the graduate level are based on another entrance examination (OECD, 2016).

Main challenges to the Chinese education system 

  1. Too large an emphasis on tests 

As has been touched on in the Background section, test scores play a highly significant role in the education system in China. Although the country has replaced the entrance exam for secondary school with hukou, senior secondary education and undergraduate as well as graduate programmes still heavily rely on evaluation scores.

A departure from the former system, a New Curriculum Reform has been underway since 2001 that addresses every aspect of the educational system, including educational philosophy, goal, content, methodology, and assessment systems at all educational levels (OECD, 2016). The new approach changes the examination-focused study mode to lessen the load on the students by relying on a variety of metrics for student achievements. The goal of this new evaluation method is to assist students in realising their potential, understanding who they are, and gaining confidence. Teachers should be able to examine and enhance their teaching techniques with the aid of the evaluation system. The new assessment system mandates periodic evaluation of curriculum implementation and study of implementation-related issues in order to assist schools in developing their curriculum systems (OECD, 2016).

Major adjustments are also being made to the gaokao (OECD, 2016). In 2014, the State Council released formal recommendations for the gaokao system overhaul. To lessen the impact of standardised testing, changes have been made to examinations at various levels. This examination reform attempts to create a contemporary examination system made up of standardised exams, thorough evaluation, and various admittance criteria. It also seeks to support overall education system change. As agreed upon with the central government, Shanghai and the province of Zhejiang will serve as the new system’s experimental pilot regions. Each province has created its own strategy to implement this change. Other towns and provinces have also revealed their own reform initiatives for the gaokao, including Beijing, Jiangsu and Guangdong (OECD, 2016).

Still, however, many sources within China as well as reports highlight the still-existing emphasis on test scores. In an article by Didi Kristen Tatlow (2014) in the New York Times, professor of education at the University of Oregon Yong Zhao revealed that the fundamental disregard for children’s individuality, hobbies, and passions in the Chinese educational system has resulted in a uniform student body. Because it compels students to spend practically all of their free time studying for exams, it leaves little time for leisurely pursuits like exercise. The intense rivalry also puts Chinese students under a lot of stress, which can harm their confidence and impair their self-esteem. Zhao also claimed a meaningful education, which focuses more on assisting each kid in growing than on pressuring them to get high test scores, is hampered in China by an overemphasis on test results (Tatlow, 2014).

In another article, one by Mark Kitto (2012) for Prospect Magazine, the focus on testing and scores is further illustrated as Kitto states that “the domestic Chinese lower education system does not educate. It is a test centre. The curriculum is designed to teach children how to pass them.” He continues, “schools do not produce well-rounded, sociable, self-reliant young people with inquiring minds. They produce winners and losers. Winners go on to college or university to take “business studies.” Losers go back to the farm or the local factory their parents were hoping they could escape” (Kitto, 2012).

Finally, reports on Chinese schools have led education experts to contend that this emphasis on exam-based education is the main cause of China’s high dropout rate (Moxley, 2010). A study by Northeast Normal University’s Institute of Rural Education from May claimed that the dropout rate in some rural areas was as high as 40 percent. The findings were ascribed in the research to “school weariness,” or exhaustion and apathy brought on by memorization drills and cramming (Moxley, 2010).

  1. A cutthroat system and mental health 

Worthy of its own section, albeit related to the previous challenge ascribed to the large emphasis on test scores, are the consequences on the mental health of Chinese students as a result of the harsh educational system in China.

According to the Annual Report on China’s Education (2014), or the Blue Book of Education, researchers closely examined 79 elementary and middle school suicide cases from 2013 and discovered that nearly all – 92 percent – occurred after a teen had experienced stress related to school, in some cases an argument with a teacher (Xinying, 2014). The second part of the school year, when children often suffer higher stress because of high school and college admission examinations, saw a 63 percent increase. The study included cases such as that of a middle school student in Hohhot who committed suicide by jumping off a building after learning that his test scores had dropped and of a 13-year-old boy in Nanjing who hanged himself at home for failing to finish his homework. The case of a girl in Sichuan province who cut her wrist and ingested poison afterlearning the results of her college entrance exam was also included. Suicides like these reveal the immense pressure students feel in China as a result of their studies, a concerning image of its educational system (Xinying, 2014).

  1. The rural-urban gap 

A third, rather crucial challenge to China’s education system has to do with the large gap between access to education in rural China compared to its urban counterparts.

China’s unprecedented levels and rates of urbanisation, with the urban population approximately tripling, hundreds of millions of Chinese have seen their quality of life improve and transformed by urbanisation (OECD, 2016). Nonetheless, it has also brought forth a number of significant societal problems. Among the most important issue is equal access to education. Not only should every child have access to school, but they should also have equal access to quality education.

Although the Chinese government has prioritised educational equity in compulsory education through a number of programmes in order to narrow the rural-urban gap, these have only solved a part of the problem (OECD, 2016). For instance, improvements have been made in infrastructural areas but even while the educational environment is improved, other considerations, such as fewer opportunities for advancement and a poorer standard of living in rural regions, make the teaching force deficit a significant issue. In this regard, policies have been made to attract more teachers in rural areas, but there is more required than just policies; broader efforts to improve social and economic opportunities in less developed parts of the country need to be addressed first (OECD, 2016).

An opinion piece by Helen Gao (2014) for the New York Times also explores this, arguing that “While many of their urban peers attend schools equipped with state-of-the-art facilities and well-trained teachers, rural students often huddle in decrepit school buildings and struggle to graspadvanced subjects such as English and chemistry amid a dearth of qualified instructors.” Additionally, she highlights research showing that a candidate from Beijing has a 41-fold higher chance of being accepted to ‘Peking University’ than a comparable applicant from the underdeveloped, predominantly rural province of Anhui (Gao, 2014).

Gao’s (2014) piece also connected the rural-urban gap to corruptive practices, stating “Parents fork out tens of thousands of dollars under the guise of “voluntary donations” to secure a slot for their children in elite elementary schools. (…) Further advantage can be purchased by parents who can pay handsomely to hire teachers to offer extra tutoring to their children, a practice discouraged by the authorities but widespread in reality” (Gao, 2014).

An added challenge to the presented gap stems from the hukou system (OECD, 2016). Large-scale internal migration brought on by China’s economic growth has substantial educational implications for both families and the government. With neighbourhood residency as the main basis for determining school enrolment in China, this means that migrant children must remain the same as their place of birth. Those who choose to remain with their parents will have restricted access to schooling  (OECD, 2016). Gao (2014) also touches on the effects of this as she explains that the hukou system denies rural children the right to enter urban public schools, forcing many of these migrant children to attend private schools that charge higher tuition fees. The unfortunate reality for many, she states, is that they “have no choice but to send their children back to their rural hometowns. Then, on the other hand, there are the children who separate from their parents and stay in their home regions, commonly referred to as “left-behind” children. They, more often than not, suffer from both mental health and educational effects (Gao, 2014).

  1. Authoritarianism in higher education

According to political scientist Elizabeth J. Perry (2015), China’s Communist party-state has created a variety of techniques to monitor and control student behaviour. Politically dependable peers serve as the leaders of the “homerooms” (banji) and “class years” (nianji)  and act as a conduit for information to and from the university administration. Peer pressure and oversight are integrated into the professional monitoring hierarchy. The “guidance counsellors” (fudaoyuan), trained employees entrusted with maintaining careful tabs on their student charges to ensure that their ideas and behaviour do not cross predetermined lines, form the cornerstone of the control system.  These guidance counsellors, who are aided by student informants, report directly to the deputy party secretaries responsible for student work (Perry, 2015).

These control procedures have even “modernised” in recent years thanks to new methodologies and tools (Perry, 2015). For instance, mental health facilities are now a common sight on Chinese college campuses. However, in China, the term “mental illness” is used to refer to beliefs and tendencies that the government deems to be politically dangerous, and the findings of the required mental health screenings given to first-year students are shared with political cadres for analysis and potential preventative or punitive action. Furthermore, the proliferation of the internet and social media has made it possible to gauge (and direct) student opinion in yet another “modernised” way. Counsellors and cadres counteract suspicious or subversive information on popular social media platforms (such as Weibo and WeChat) by commissioning counter-posts that support the officially sanctioned viewpoint in addition to censoring it (Perry, 2015).

In an effort to sway student sentiment in favour of the CCP’s objectives, the party-state uses both proactive and reactive methods (Perry, 2015). Military training (junxun) and ideological and political education (sixiang zhengzhi jiaoyu) have been required courses at universities since the 1990s. These lessons and activities aim to instil dispositions and conduct that support the dictatorship. Teaching “cultural proficiency” (wenhua sushi) and “national character” (guoqing), which present Chinese history, art, philosophy, and literature in ways that present a natural relationship and fundamental compatibility between the splendours of China’s ancient “tradition” and its modern “socialist” system, has gained importance in recent years. As such, universities are a crucial element of a vast party-state project in cultural governance that aims to persuade people that CCP rule is justified by “Chinese characteristics” that make it both essential and natural (Perry, 2015).

Key takeaways

Although education in China has become a priority in recent decades, and has made great progress in its achievements and reforms, the country still faces some significant challenges. From an overemphasis on test scores that fail to create more well-rounded students and has adverse effects on students’ mental health to discrepancies brought about by the rural-urban gap, China needs to reform their zhongkao, gaokao and hukou systems to ensure a more balanced, equitable, quality education for all.

The fourth challenge discussed in this article, namely the control and subtle propaganda systems infiltrating the higher education levels in China, from a democratic perspective, limits students’ ability to form essential critical abilities. This challenge in particular is one that seems difficult to see addressed as it is actively pursued by the government and would therefore, rather than be seen as a challenge, be seen as a tool.  This makes this challenge particularly complex.


Reference list 

Chen, Y. (2017). Issues of the Chinese Education System. Leadership Society of Arizona. https://leadaz.org/2017/03/13/issues-chinese-education-system/

Gao, H. (2014). China’s Education Gap. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/05/opinion/sunday/chinas-education-gap.html

Kitto, M. (2012). You’ll Never be Chinese. Prospect Magazine. https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/50279/youll-never-be-chinese

Moxley, M. (2010). CHINA: Alarming School Dropout Rate Blamed on Teaching Methods. Global Issues. https://www.globalissues.org/news/2010/06/30/6153

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (2016). Education in China. A Snapshot. https://www.oecd.org/china/Education-in-China-a-snapshot.pdf

Perry, E. J. (2015). Higher Education and Authoritarian Resilience: The Case of China, Past and Present. Harvard-Yenching Institute Working Paper Series. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:30822717

Tatlow, D. K. (2014). Q. and A.: Yong Zhao on Education and Authoritarianism in China. The New York Times. https://archive.nytimes.com/sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/09/14/q-and-a-yong-zhao-on-education-and-authoritarianism-in-china/

Xinying, Z. (2014). School Tests Blamed for Suicides. China dailyhttps://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2014-05/14/content_17505291.htm