BEIJING — It should have been party time on the bright summer day 18-year-old Li Junliang was accepted by prestigious Beijing University. Fewer than one in 10 of China’s students secure places at any of the country’s crowded colleges and universities, let alone the Oxford University of China. But the acceptance letter sparked little in the way of celebration in the Li family home.

Li Junliang stands in front of Beijing University’s gate.

Staring at the long list of fees to pay, including those for tuition, books, accommodation and insurance, Li’s parents despaired of ever being able to raise the needed $850 a year. On an annual income of barely $300, the farming couple from Fangshan County, south of Beijing, are already supporting Li’s elder brother at university.

The Li family is one of tens of thousands of Chinese families struggling to meet the spiraling costs of higher education. For decades, free education was one of the ruling Communist Party’s proudest boasts, but in recent years the government has moved toward a more market-oriented approach. University tuition fees have climbed steadily since free education was abolished in 1997.

Another 20 percent hike this year threatens to cut off some of China’s most disadvantaged young people. The raise pushes average tuition fees to $730 a year, equivalent to the average per capita annual income of an urban family, and three times the rural average. “If university fees had been as expensive (when I enrolled) as they are today, my family would have given up on my education,” says Chen Guangcheng, a blind student from Shandong Province southeast of Beijing. “My father only makes $60 a year.”

Chen overcame many barriers facing disabled students when he won a place at the Nanjing Traditional Medicine University in 1998. Chen’s acupuncture and massage course is one of the few routes to university education available to blind people in China. When Chen’s father took him to Nanjing, his luggage stuffed with homemade bread rolls, they were told the $340 they had managed to borrow was still $60 short. Only after much begging did university authorities let Chen enroll.

“Even without the raise, I know many rural families were already put off by the high cost,” says Chen at his simple family home in Shandong County, Yinan. “Now even more bright students will stay stuck in the muddy fields forever. We should not be deprived of the right to education just because we are poor.”

Like many poor students, Chen was reluctant to take out a student loan. “When you are desperately poor, you simply don’t dare borrow any money, even if you are allowed to,” he says. For some students, the only way to stay in college is to sell their belongings or even their own blood.

The fee hike has drawn strong public reaction from parents. China’s one-child policy, enforced most rigidly in its cities, heightens parental pressure on children to succeed. A survey of 1,000 parents in three of China’s richest cities — Beijing, Tianjin and Guangzhou — revealed that 58 percent thought the rise “unreasonable” and “very hard to accept.” At the same time, 70 percent vowed they would push their children to attend university whatever the cost, a reflection of the growing conviction that only university education offers the hope of a prosperous career path.

While many urban households can afford belt-tightening cuts in clothing and food expenditure, rural families, and those with members laid off from state-owned enterprises, face tougher times. Li’s parents have borrowed from every friend and relative who could spare some cash. “My family is determined that I go to university,” explains Li. “For a poor country boy like me, education is the only way to change my fate.”

Such commitment is welcome news to government economists trying to persuade China’s citizens to break into their $600 billion in bank savings. Dr. Hu Angang at the China Academy of Sciences hopes university spending will stimulate consumption and boost the economy. “Chinese parents will invest as long as their ‘one-child’ children have the opportunity to go to university,” he says. “According to a survey by the State Statistics Bureau, Chinese are willing to spend 10 percent of their savings on education. If half of them realize their plan, then the potential annual expenditure on education will add up to $30 billion.”

That remains an unlikely “if’ until the government expands enrollment far beyond its current goal — a jump from 9 percent to 15 percent of university applicants. And that goal itself will require major reform of China’s higher-education system, the “last stronghold” of the planned economy, in Dr Hu’s opinion. “The problem China has is trying to use limited resources to educate a large number of people. If the state can’t run the whole show, let it be turned over to the market. Increased tuition fees are just the first step.”

Hu believes that raising fees will lead to greater competition and more private, even foreign-sponsored universities.

As China’s Ministry of Education attempts to turn the burden of a vast population into a human-resources advantage, some experts question the morality of higher costs. “Even if tuition fees go higher, there will always be people who are able to pay. But the point is — is it fair?” asks Wei Xin, deputy head of Beijing University’s Education Economy Research Institute, in China Newsweek, one of many mainland publications to focus on the issue. Wei notes that social wealth is far from evenly distributed in China, with the bulk of savings in the hands of the richest 20 percent and a growing disparity between urban and rural households becoming apparent. “In my view, a fair tuition fee is less than $365 a year,” Wei calculated.

Sitting in the dormitory he now shares with seven other freshmen at Beijing University, Li Junliang knows he is among the fortunate few. His parents were on the point of approaching loan sharks when luck struck again: Li won a grant for $365 from the China Youth Foundation “Sunshine Project.” The grant was given in recognition of his economic needs, strong academic record and an earlier stroke of luck — enrollment in the Hongzhi class at Beijing’s Guangqumen Middle School, which offers free education to some of the capital’s poorer students.

“I really don’t know what would have become of me if it weren’t for Hongzhi,” Li says. Cherishing the opportunity, he studied hard and saved even harder. To stretch his $12 pocket money, Li ate only bread rolls and pickles. “I wouldn’t have brushed my teeth if it wasn’t the rule. I wasn’t used to it and it costs money,” he says now. Under his red Hongzhi T-shirt, acquired in return for a donation to the gift-dependent school, Li appears malnourished compared to his roommates. While their beds are scattered with books and CDs, Li’s corner is bare.

Yet he gives no sign of feeling envious. “I only feel sorry that my parents are sacrificing so much,” he says. His mother was once taken to hospital but refused an operation to remove a gallstone because of the cost. His parents’ poor health is the reason Li chose to study medicine. To save the 80 cent bus fare, Li rarely returned home when he was a student at Hongzhi. Now he plans to buy a secondhand bicycle, so he can pedal the 100 km home to see his frail parents. It will be a long hard ride, yet far easier than his journey to the university gates.

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