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March 18, 2011

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Free tuition but no free lunch

FOUR years' free tuition at a Shanghai teachers' college sounds great, but after graduation students must give back and teach for 10 years far from the bright lights. Fei Lai reports.

Four years ago, graduation seemed a long way off and prospective teachers at East China Normal University (ECNU) didn't fret about signing away the next 10 years of their life to teach. They were gung-ho and committed. And tuition and fees were free.

Now they are about to be tested after graduation in June; many are enthusiastic, some are lukewarm and a few want out, saying teaching doesn't hold the same allure after living in Shanghai.

The free four-year education comes with strings attached - teaching in their home provinces for 10 years, with at least two of those years in rural areas, if they first teach in better-off areas.

"The students should fulfill their obligations after receiving a free education," said a teacher surnamed Zhou at the Employment Guidance Center of ECNU who she declined to give her full name. "It can help ease the problem of teacher shortages in underdeveloped rural areas. We must give them full support."

But two students, who declined to be named or speak at length, said they had changed their minds about their future and would break their contracts and pay the penalties.

One young woman has enrolled in the University of Minnesota. A man has been made a handsome offer by a foreign trade company in Shanghai; then he wants an MBA in Canada. He too will break the contract and pay the fines. Both of their families are well-off.

Both said that when they entered college, they didn't really know what they wanted to do; now that they know, the teaching commitment would interfere with their career goals.

Other students, while committed to teaching for 10 years, are afraid that provincial authorities will insist they teach in underdeveloped areas for more than two years. The national guidelines are clear but provinces have discretion to make changes and no one wants to be stuck in the countryside for 10 years. Many provincial authorities have not clarified their policies.

The program to improve rural education involves five other major teacher's colleges directly under the Ministry of Education around China, including Beijing Normal University, Northeast Normal University in Jilin (Changchun Province), Huazhong Normal University in Wuhan (Hubei Province), Southwest China Normal University in Chongqing and Shaanxi Normal University in Xi'an.

The 900 students who graduate this June are the first batch to have signed the contract four years ago and penalties for breaking it are high - 1.5 times of tuition and a bad mark that might follow them forever. They must return directly and not dawdle in Shanghai.

"To some extent, the free teacher education campaign kills the diversity of students' options and future development," says Fan Chaoqun, a political science major at East China Normal University, saying he's under a lot of pressure. ECNU has around 13,500 undergraduates and 7,700 graduate students.

Fan, one of the 900 tuition-free students, including around 110 from Shanghai, according to the Employment Guidance Center of ECNU, is still committed to teaching. But now he wants to go instead to an impoverished part of Yunnan Province and teach for two years in a China-US project with recent American teaching graduates.

He no longer wants to return to his native Jiangxi Province where he already has two offers. He is asking education authorities to release him from his contract.

If Jiangxi authorities refuse his request and if he still chooses Yunnan, he faces a fine of up to 150 percent of tuition, subsidies and other fees paid by the government.

"A free education did reduce the financial burden on my family," he says. "But there are so many things luring you in Shanghai in particular. Besides becoming a teacher, here we have all kinds of possibilities for career or advanced education."

Fan blames himself for not being better informed about the policy before he signed up.

The free-tuition agreement also prohibits overseas study and limits postgraduate study to part-time (plus part-time teaching), only in fields related to the undergraduates' major and only in the same school.

The 10 years of mandatory teaching also applies to free-tuition students from Shanghai who are also required to teach in suburban areas or in schools for migrant workers' children.

Finding work is not expected to be a problem given the teacher shortage. Before graduation students must complete a three-month internship and some return to their home provinces for the experience.

Fang's classmate Huang Yanda from Heilongjiang Province has already signed a contract with No. 1 Jiamusi High School where he will teach political science and do some administrative work.

He has never had any doubts about being a teacher - both his parents are middle school teachers; one teaches English and the other Chinese.

"It's a profession that I admire and my parents want me to be their successor. Seeing so many students they have nurtured, I feel great respect. I can even remember my teachers from 10 years ago. It really is a wonderful job."

He and around 30 students from Heilongjiang have formed an association at ECNU to help each other find positions in the province. They have urged principals to undertake recruitment in Shanghai.

Huang recalls a survey and teaching visit to a poor county in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region where there was only one teacher in a school.

The parents' faces were filled with hope when they saw Huang and other student teachers who came to help for a short while. When they left, the young teachers, the parents and the children all felt the pain.

"People there live a different way of life," says Huang. "I think people who pursue a calm and comfortable life in developed areas are not as happy as those who help other in rural areas.

"And I want to be one of the helpers," he concludes.


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