China’s unpopular education minister Zhou Ji was relieved of his post on Saturday by the National People’s Congress. No reason was given, though there are suspicions that the former mayor of Wuhan may have been involved in a bribery scandal dating from 2000. If suspected embezzlement weren’t enough of a reason to dismiss a government official, he also did little to resolve the long list of problems plaguing the Chinese education system, including plagiarism by both professors and students, corruption (remember the poorly-built schools that collapsed during the Sichuan earthquake?), commercialization, prohibitively high school fees, underfunded public schools, a decline in the quality of university education, unmotivated students and poor quality teachers.
At 63, Zhou was only two years away from retirement, an unusual time to reassign a government minister. The move was likely a political one indended to placate a public increasingly dissatisfied with the education system. Nobody is calling Zhou the source of the problems, but he had accomplished little change in his six years holding the post.
Unfortunately, even if we give Zhou the benefit of the doubt, his hands were largely tied by a lack of funding. China has yet to invest 4% of its GDP on education, an internationally accepted norm, even though it committed to doing so in 2000. Teachers are among the lowest paid of Chinese civil servants, virtually guaranteeing that the most competent individuals are not going to consider a career path in education. Millions of dollars earmarked for improvements to national universities have been used for new buildings, not improving the teaching staff. In addition, education system directives are often handed down by Beijing on high, giving local educators little room to apply suitable policies for schools within their own communities.
Removing a public servant may be a band-aid that distracts the public for just a little bit longer, but without structural change, the fruits of a poor education system will be readily apparent in students and a society ill-equipped to participate in a global economy.