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Education has played an important role in China's long cultural tradition. During the imperial period (221 BC-1911 AD), only educated intellectuals could hold positions of social and political leadership. In the 2nd century BC, the first imperial college was established for educating prospective officials in Confucian teaching and Chinese classics. In ancient times, few Chinese had the time to learn the complicated Chinese writing system and its associated literature. As late as 1949 only 20 percent of China's population was literate. By 2001 China's literacy rate had reached 70 percent, although literacy levels between the sexes were still unequal. Literacy in China is defined as the ability to read without difficulty. Because it believes, that widespread illiteracy is an obstacle to the modernization of the country, the government advocates educational development. By the late 20th century, the first national objective of popularizing nine year of compulsory education had been realized.
By 2000, 85 percent of the school-age population was receiving nine years of compulsory education throughout China. The gross enrollment ratio of junior middle schools was 88.6 percent; and the attendance rate of children in primary schools was 99.1 percent, exceeding the average levels of other developing countries during the same period.
In China, elementary education includes pre-school, elementary school (6 years), junior high school (3 years), (elementary school and junior high school are compulsory), regular senior high school (3 years), and special education for handicapped children. The goal of the education system is the elimination of illiteracy. The government has given priority to the development of elementary education, regarding it as the key to educational development. Reforms involving increased government financial input, experimental reform of courses and implementation of a new education appraisal system, are underway in various areas in China.
Higher education has also leapt forward. Its subjects and disciplines have gradually become complete, covering various fields such as philosophy, economics, law, education, literature, art, history and science. The degree system has also been established and reinforced. In 1980, the first academic degree regulations of the People’s Republic of China were issued. By the end of 2000, there were around 1,000 regular institutions of higher learning, with 5.56 million students. Under the new higher education system, the most promising students are placed in selected key-point schools, which specialize in training the academic elite. University education remains difficult to attain. As many as 2 million students compete each year, through entrance examinations, for 500,000 university openings. Students finishing senior high school may also attend junior colleges and a variety of technical and vocational schools.
Various reforms have been carried out in recent years in the higher education system, such as reform of the college entrance examination and relevant regulations, and reform aimed at promoting quality education. Higher education defined as non-compulsory by the reform, used to be subsidized or exempted by the government, and was regarded as social welfare under Communism. Since 1989, institutions of higher learning have adopted the practice of charging tuition. With the implementation of reform, the teachers' qualification system officially came into effect. According to the system, only those who have legally obtained qualifications for teaching and have teaching credentials are allowed to work as teachers.
Certain fields of study have grown in popularity in Chinese higher education. While engineering and science remain very popular, other fields, including medicine, economics, foreign language, and law have grown rapidly in recent years. Another trend has been the rapid increase in the large number of advanced students studying abroad, mainly in North America, Europe, and Japan.
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