The bright lights of Beijing are just an hour's drive from the grinding poverty of the rural communities that still till the soil by hand. With 1.2 billion people, China is the world's most populous nation. Despite accelerating urban growth, 70 per cent of the population lives in rural areas.
China's diverse education system is the biggest in the world, serving more than 200 million school children. In theory, education is compulsory between the ages of six and 15. However, according to official government figures, a third of the population lives in areas that this programme has not reached.
The economic reform of China, which began in the 1980s under Deng Xiaoping and is being continued by present premier Jiang Zemin, has resulted in phenomenal economic growth.
University education has undergone a similar reform and is also expanding rapidly. Daokai Ge, science and engineering division director of the higher education department at the ministry of education, said: "The Chinese economic system used to be very highly centralised. To adapt to that, the former higher education system was also centralised, with education provided by the central and local governments respectively and directly under their administration.
"The disadvantages of this system were: the state undertook too many responsibilities and the schools lacked the flexibility and autonomy to provide education according to the needs of society; the structure was irrational and segmented; there were too many single disciplinary and professional higher education institutions, disciplines overlapped and the efficiency of some institutions fell very low."
China is just completing a five-year plan to reform its university system and is drawing up plans for up to 2005. The past five years have seen a massive expansion in higher education. One in ten people now goes through higher education (the figure includes some provision that would be classed as further education in other countries) compared with 3 per cent in 1990, according to government figures.
That expansion will continue under the next five-year plan, according to Dai Jingang, the division chief for higher education in the department of development and planning at the Chinese ministry of education.
He said by 2005, participation in higher education should reach 13 per cent, by 2010 it should reach 15 per cent and by 2015, 30 per cent. As in the United Kingdom, the bulk of this anticipated expansion will be channelled through sub-degree provision.
"We are developing higher education actively and firmly; training professionals for various fields with great effort; strengthening research work in higher education institutions; strengthening the cooperation between those institutions and enterprise, as well as scientific research institutes; promoting the industrial-isation of high and new technologies; and further enhancing the role of higher education institutions in the innovative system of our nation," Mr Dai said.
China's universities and research centres were created by the various ministries. Communication between them was poor, and it remains strained.
In the most fundamental reform, the ministry of education took responsibility for the better-known universities, and local government took responsibility for local institutions.
"In the past, universities were under the control of government or the provinces. Under this system, in one city some institutions were under the control of the government and others under the provinces, and there was a problem with overlapping work and a problem with efficiency. Through the rationalisation, the ministry of education wants to specify the specialities of each university," said Professor Ge.
The first tranche of universities moved ministry in 1992. The ministry of education took over ten universities from the economic and trade commission, leaving the rest - some 80 institutions - to provincial government control. In February 1999, the 25 universities run by the science and industry commission were reorganised. Seven became the responsibility of the ministry of education and 18 were devolved to provincial government. In a process of rationalisation, institutions merged, refocused on areas of research strength or closed. The ministry of education started with 100 institutions. It now has 71.
The need to reform the financing of higher education also became apparent. "In the past, institutions were supported by the government, but the government can no longer afford to do so. Now we will encourage others in society to invest in the universities," Professor Ge said.
In 1997, the government introduced tuition fees and a student loan system, and opened up student numbers. The demand for higher education in China far outstrips the supply. Even with the introduction of tuition fees, there was a 47 per cent rise in enrolments the following year.
Since then, the government upped the maximum fee an institution can charge students, according to Jiang Feng of the department of international co-operation and exchanges at the ministry of education. The maximum fee was originally set at 25 per cent of the total cost of a course. It is now 35 per cent.
The expansion of higher education was also helped by the fact that the government is no longer responsible for graduate employment. Professor Ge said: "In the past, all students were given jobs by the government. Now all students can decide where they want to go, and employers can decide which students they want to take. China's huge population makes it difficult to achieve full employment, and concerns remain over the employment of graduates.
The traditional Chinese methods of teaching are being rethought and becoming more student-oriented. The government wants universities to concentrate on their core missions.
Professor Ge said: "We must focus on the ability of students to solve problems. With the development of the market-oriented (economic) system, we need students who can solve the problems in society."
He added: "If the curriculum is narrow, that limits the development of Students."
LONG-DISTANCE LEARNING LIFTS RURAL CHINESE
About 70 per cent of China's 1.2 billion population lives outside the cities. China's economy is predominantly agricultural and most work is carried out manually. Fields contain footprints showing where a farmer has steadied a plough pulled by a mule. Nearby, labourers dig with spades.
Distance education is poised to heave rural China up by its bootstraps. It may be a while, however, before the vision of a Sino-British project to develop environmental education in primary and secondary schools becomes reality. The project was designed to coincide with the reform of teaching to encourage creativity and problem-solving in Chinese schools.
A pilot scheme run by staff at Beijing Normal University used interactive, computer-based technology to train primary and secondary school teachers. Teachers in rural schools met in regional towns to videoconference with trainers.
An evaluation of the scheme concluded that while the approach had potential benefits, there were problems because the technology required ISDN lines, internet access and computer knowledge.
In regional centres, colleges help plug the gap between the demand and supply of higher education. Along with television and radio universities, they offer opportunities for adults to acquire "self-study" exam passes to enter university or obtain higher education qualifications.
PROJECT 211 PROVIDES CASH FOR UNIVERSITIES
Promoting teaching and research strength in universities has been a priority for the Chinese government for the past few years.
Its "Project 211" has poured money into two institutions in particular, Beijing University and Quinghua University, both located in the capital city.
Beijing University is known for the excellence of its teaching and research in the arts and humanities, and Quinghua for its scientific teaching and research.
Much of the money has been spent on salaries to attract and retain world-class staff, according to the ministry of education. Even so, staff complain of low incomes. A research fellow at Beijing University said:
"Now, some people are much richer than others. My salary makes me embarrassed. I want to invite friends for lunch or dinner and I am embarrassed. When I go for lunch with my students, they pay for me."
More institutions are becoming involved with Project 211. The government said: "It is envisaged that after several years' efforts, some 100 institutions of higher learning and a group of key disciplinary areas will have greatly improved their quality of education, scientific research, management and institutional efficiency."