Educational take-off in Tibet

Published : Sep 16, 2000 00:00 IST

Developing modern education in Tibet is one of China's priorities. A visit to a Lhasa secondary school makes clear the meaning and implications of educational take-off.

THE role played by education and health in economic development, and in the overall development of a society, has won increasing recognition in recent years. If the basic educational challenge in India and South Asia has been daunting and seemingly intra ctable, partly for historical reasons, Tibet has been in a league virtually all its own.

Old Tibet, that is Tibet prior to 1959, when the Democratic Reform was introduced by China's central government, abolishing serfdom and introducing land reform and other far-going modern social changes, had an educational base lower than that of any othe r part of China and even of the most backward region in South Asia. Ironically, it is the political representatives of this old and educationally backward Tibet - the Dalai Lama and his Dharmasala-based 'government of Tibet in exile', the so-called Kazha g - who are most vociferous in accusing China's government of neglecting education for Tibetans in Tibet, suppressing the Tibetan language, and using "education development in Tibet" as a political tool to "strip Tibetans of their cultural rights and dig nity."1

As we saw in the cover feature discussion, "Tibet: A Reality Check," in the previous issue of Frontline (September 15, 2000), pre-1951 Tibet had nothing like a modern educational system. Traditional education, going back more than a thousand years to the creation of the Tibetan script under the Tubo kingdom, was monastic education, more or less. Its content was the study of Buddhist scriptures and to some extent the study of the Tibetan language and numeracy. At the time of peaceful liberation in 1951, Dalai Lama-ruled Tibet had about 20 schools run by local governments and some 100 small-scale private schools. These schools together catered to fewer than 1,000 Tibetan children - out of a total population of Tibet estimated by the Dalai Lama's g overnment at one million. These schools outside the monastic system were meant for the training of lay and monk officials or for imparting a modicum of basic education - reading, writing and arithmetic besides the recitation of Tibetan Buddhist scripture s - to the children of aristocratic, wealthy, and business families.

This fact speaks for itself: in 1951, a pathetic two per cent of school-age Tibetan children were in school and the officially estimated illiteracy rate in Tibet was 95 per cent.

One caveat, advanced by the Dalai Lama's 'government of Tibet in exile' and the 'independence for Tibet' movement, needs to be considered: the claim that in old Tibet the monastic education system took care of the educational needs of the people. "In ind ependent Tibet," asserts a White Paper posted on the web by the 'government of Tibet in exile', "monasteries and nunneries, numbering over 6,000, served as schools and universities, fulfilling Tibet's educational needs"2 (emphasis added ). Even allowing for exaggeration, the claim that there were, in Dalai Lama-ruled Tibet, over 6,000 Buddhist monasteries and nunneries with close to 600,000 resident monks and nuns makes no sense unless the context is understood to be 'Greater Tibet'. (T his is 'Cholka-Sum' comprising U-Tsang, Kham, and Amdo, which, according to the revanchist demand made by the Dalai Lama and his establishment, should be 'restored' as a separate political entity.) A more realistic estimate is that in old Tibet monks and nuns accounted for 10 per cent of the population.

So what difference did the traditional practice of monastic education make? The answer is that while it did make some qualitative difference, it seemed light years away from "fulfilling Tibet's educational needs," that is, the educational needs of Tibet' s 1951 population of one million (the bulk of which was made up of serfs and slaves). Old Tibet had many brilliant cultural and literary achievements to its credit: it nurtured outstanding intellectuals, created a rich literature, developed Buddhist clas sics, above all the Tripitaka, and accomplished wonderful things in the fields of art, architecture, astronomy, medicine, and so on. But all this cannot obscure the fact that Dalai Lama-ruled Tibet was, in terms of basic education and other human development indicators, one of the most backward places on earth.

As we have seen in the previous issue of Frontline, there was a great deal in the monastic system that needed protection, but the traditional Tibetan religious community was far from being a unified or homogenous community in any sense. It was org anised on rigid hierarchical lines where learning but also other factors, especially politics, played a significant part and there was plenty of contradiction, schism, tension, conflict, and cruelty. There was a strong class system at work in Lamaism, wi th the majority of monks and nuns being poor, put upon, and poorly educated. At the working level, the system was characterised by huge gaps in wealth, status, and command of commodities and capabilities.

All this affected, and severely limited, educational prospects within the monastic system. A scrutiny of the official records of old Tibet has shown that monk students accounted for just a fifth of the total number of resident monks. Further, to have any prospect of advancement, monk students needed a Geshi degree. This often took at least 20 years of arduous study of Buddhism and considerable economic capabilities and stamina, since the fees for the Geshi degree examination were beyond the reach of mos t monks. The outcome was that the overwhelming majority of monk students failed to get the cherished degree after a lifetime of hard study.

MODERN education for the people came to Tibet only in the early 1950s, following peaceful liberation. The first significant event in this respect came soon after Qamdo was liberated in October 1950. The Qamdo Primary School, the first to introduce modern education in the history of Tibet, was established in March 1951. This was followed by the setting up of a group of new-type primary schools in Lhasa, Xigase, Ngari, and other parts of Tibet. Article 9 of the 17-Article Agreement on the Peaceful Liberat ion of Tibet, signed in May 1951, envisaged a modest and gradual progress in basic education: "The spoken and written language and school education of the Tibetan nationality shall be developed step by step in accordance with the actual conditions in Tib et." In September 1956, the Lhasa Middle School, the first of its kind in Tibet's history, was founded. By June 1957, there were 98 primary schools with an enrolment of more than 6,000 pupils plus the solitary junior middle school in Lhasa. Later that ye ar, concern over the quality and relevance of the education offered led to a restructuring and consolidation of these schools: the number was brought down from 98 to 13 significantly improved schools, with better teachers, better conditions, and an enrol ment of just under 3,500 pupils.

On the eve of the Armed Uprising of 1959, there was a kind of dyarchy at work in Tibet, "the co-existence of the old and new political powers, two military forces and two educational systems."3 The educational arena, in particular, witnessed c onflicts and tensions. There was a fierce conservative backlash against the project of sending children to school instead of keeping them at work as child labourers. The initial stage of the Chinese government's attempt to introduce modern schooling to T ibet encountered ideological counter-arguments well known to other societies where compulsory schooling laws and policy measures have challenged traditional social verities: 'production at risk', 'a shortage of labour power', 'interference in family affa irs', 'disruption of the traditional way of life', and so on. In addition, reflecting the distinctive conditions and features of old Tibet, a shrill cry arose that the introduction of modern schooling was designed drastically to reduce the number of monk s, nuns and lamas and therefore freedom of religion was under threat. As a consequence, hundreds of pupils who went to Tibet's first modern primary schools faced a degree of physical violence and had to be provided safe escort to pursue their studies.

Educational progress accelerated following the suppression of the Armed Uprising of 1959 and the introduction of the Democratic Reform. In 1965, the newly established Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) had an educational system comprising 87 public primary sc hools and 1,735 non-government primary schools, with a total enrolment of nearly 67,000 pupils; four middle schools with an enrolment of just over 1,000 pupils; and a secondary teachers' school and the Tibetan Nationality College, Tibet's first modern in stitution of higher learning.

The Cultural Revolution decade (1966-76) proved calamitous for education in Tibet, as it did for the whole of China. Nevertheless, in 1974, many teachers from inland China were sent to Tibet by the State Education Commission. The quality of education beg an to improve after 1977, when for the first time in Tibet's history examinations were held for enrolment in college and middle school.

Since 1979, about a dozen work, or other special, conferences have been held, at the central or regional level, in Tibet. Developing education as well as raising its quality has been addressed as a top developmental and political priority. A package of p referential measures, including tuition waiver for primary school pupils in both town and country, free food, clothing and accommodation for pupils living in the border areas, and special schemes for young Tibetans to study in other parts of China, was i mplemented. Central government investment in education in TAR was stepped up.

Yet, in 1987, the second conference on aiding Tibetan education came to the assessment that the overall situation was unsatisfactory and that education in TAR had developed at a rate lower than it had in China's inland areas. A follow-up conference that year worked out new principles for restructuring and reforming Tibet's educational system: "Stressing primary education, giving priority to the training of teachers, consolidating and enhancing college and university education, and actively developing vo cational and adult education." It called for a new emphasis on science and technology, learning from the experience of other nationalities in China, and rapidly developing an advanced system of education with distinctive Tibetan characteristics.

The Third National Conference on Tibet Work, held in 1994, identified the role of modern education in Tibet's development as strategic and lay down guidelines for educational reform and development. Following this up, the TAR government formulated an ambitious educational development programme for the period 1996-2000. The major targets and tasks set in the programme included: drawing an additional 100,000 students into primary and middle schools during the programme period; building 1,000 primar y and middle schools; establishing 100 key primary and middle schools and important subjects in colleges and universities; making 100,000 adults literate; building 10 vocational schools; setting up 10 model counties which are able to combine agriculture and science with education; training 1,000 headmasters for primary and middle schools; selecting 100 model teachers; building 1,000 apartments for teachers; and building 1,000 classrooms and setting up 100 centres for moral education.

Over the past half-decade, measures for compulsory schooling have been implemented by the TAR government and backed up by sharply increased budget allocations for, and stepped up capital investment in, education. The key decision was to popularise and im plement, by 2000, three-year compulsory schooling in pastoral areas; six-year compulsory schooling in agricultural areas; and nine-year compulsory schooling in major cities and towns.

As a consequence of all this, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, "a fairly complete educational system" going up from kindergarten to university level and including technical and vocational secondary schools has taken "initial shape" in Tibet. 4 In 1999, according to official educational statistics, TAR had 820 primary schools, 101 middle schools, and 3,033 teaching centres with a combined enrolment of 354,644 students - compared with fewer than 1,000 students in 1951 and just over 6,000 students in June 1957. A teaching and administrative staff of more than 22,279, including 19,276 full-time teachers, represented the backbone of the educational system. Of this staff, 80 per cent was drawn from China's minority nationalities, chief ly the Tibetan nationality. There were four institutions of higher learning, notably Tibet University, with a combined enrolment of 5,249 students. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, more than 20,000 students have graduated from Tibet's higher edu cational institutions and over 23,000 from its secondary vocational schools; and, contrary to what has been alleged by the Dalai Lama-led campaign, the overwhelming proportion of this qualified workforce has been Tibetan, a fact that can be verified by a reality check in TAR.

Tibet's first secondary school

A visit to Lhasa's No.1 Senior Secondary School makes clear the meaning and implications of educational take-off in a least-developed society. The school, founded in 1956, was the first middle school in Tibet. Today, all its students are senior hi gh school students. No.1 is a fine affair with modern buildings and classrooms, spacious grounds, and exemplary sports and extra-curricular facilities. It has benefited from having English language teachers from North America in residence here, has sent some of its teachers abroad for training, and is even negotiating a student exchange programme. It also offers a quite splendid prospect of the Potala. This is still vacation time, but students in smart red-and-white uniforms have come to help clean up a nd prepare the classrooms and grounds for a new educational year.

Aside from the friendly, but mostly shy boys and girls (many of whom seem able to communicate basically in English) and a few teachers, we meet the Principal, Shi Ping, and the school's Party Secretary, Han Hiaowu. The latter, a quiet-spoken man who came to Tibet 24 years ago from Shenyang in Liaoning Province in North-East China, has been involved exclusively in educational work in Tibet. He gives us - in the initial briefing and in response to specific questions - a clear-sighted perspective of both h is school and what is being attempted generally in Tibet in the educational field:

"This was the first middle school established by the People's Government after Tibet's peaceful liberation. Before that, there was no educational institution in the modern sense, not even primary schools. Since its founding more than four decades ago, ou r school has been through great changes. When it was founded, it had only a couple of hundred students. Now we have 32 classes and 1,800 students. Our students are all senior high school students. There are no junior high school students here. We have a total staff strength of 164, including 134 teachers. All our teachers have complied with the country's qualifying requirements.

"Now we have ten courses here - Tibetan, Chinese, English, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Politics, History, Geography. Plus sports.

"Our school has a total area of 187,000 square metres. Educational facilities here are quite complete.

"Our students do not need to pay any tuition fees, but we do have some special fees and charges. Students from poor or needy families are exempted, but those from urban areas and from reasonably well-off families need to pay these. I think these special fees and charges add up to some 80 yuan (that is, less than $10) per semester and, in addition, textbooks cost about 60 yuan. Those who live on the campus pay a charge of 50 yuan (for five months). For those whose families are poor, such charges are redu ced or written off. For those whose families are extremely poor, the school takes care of board and lodge completely. Of course, the poorest students come from rural areas and areas of herdsmen.

"As a key middle school, our major task is to train and equip graduates for institutions of higher learning. Yes, I would say ours is one of the leading educational institutions in Tibet. According to the latest statistics, we have in Tibet 97 regular se condary schools and four higher educational institutions. As for secondary school graduates, apart from going to Tibet's institutions of higher learning, they go to universities and other higher educational institutions in various parts of China. Especia lly since last year, when the policy of developing the West was adopted, inland areas in China have increased the enrolment of Tibetan students. And the scale of educational activities in the Tibet Autonomous Region has also been expanded. Our Government provides scholarships and other kinds of financial support for those from this region who gain admission in universities in inland China. The TAR government also makes special financial allocations for students from rural areas and areas of herdsmen.

"As far as higher educational institutions are concerned, starting this September, there may be some changes. Tuition fees may be increased. But for primary school and middle school, the present structure (of the Government financing education for the mo st part) may continue. In my personal view, with improvements in living standards, it is natural for people to make more investments in education.

"This process of educational development takes time. As you know, the starting point of education in Tibet has been very low compared with other places. In terms of education, the city of Lhasa enjoys the best position in Tibet, but even here educational development started only in the latter half of the 1950s. Other parts of the region have been more backward - the foundation in Tibet has been very poor. We are now adopting a six year compulsory, and free, educational system for rural and herdsmen's ar eas.

"The TAR government has a special law for implementing six-year compulsory schooling. Cities and some counties with a good foundation have adopted nine-year compulsory schooling. Last year, this district of Lhasa completed and achieved nine-year compulso ry schooling. Some other districts on the outskirts of Lhasa and some counties in Shannan Prefecture will be accomplishing this in the near future.

"As for measures to implement the compulsory school education law, we do encounter conservative attitudes in rural areas. The Government is doing a lot of educational and publicity work to overcome this problem. The Government and departments responsible for education at various levels will intensify this educational and publicity work and mobilise farmers to send their children compulsorily to school. In addition, to encourage the initiative of farmers in sending their children to school, it is importa nt to combine academic study with vocational skills and training at both the secondary and primary school level. The notion that students can learn not only some academic knowledge, but also some basic production skills is widely publicised in these area s. This encourages parents to comply with the law of compulsory schooling. This approach has been adopted fairly recently, but it is being intensively implemented. Starting from the end of the 1980s or the early 1990s, efforts to combine the teaching of agricultural skills, science and technology and general education have been on in some counties.

"Last autumn the TAR government convened six meetings on education and it was decided to step up efforts to promote the comprehensive restructuring of education in the region. This basically means combining academic study with the teaching of agricultura l skills and science and technology... We let farmers and herdsmen realise that it is very useful to put their children in school. So the laws stipulated by the Government gradually become the voluntary views of the people. But it takes some time to make this shift.

"Our educational law says equal rights for women - girls and boys have equal rights in schools as well as in the institutions of higher learning. In our school, the proportion is 50:50, maybe at most a one percentage point difference.

"Sending teachers and leading cadres from other provinces (of China) to help develop education in Tibet is an approach followed for a long time, since peaceful liberation. This reflects the Communist Party of China's, and the Central Government's, policy towards Tibet - which is based on equality, mutual assistance, and common development.

"You will agree that education is the basis of development. The general developmental gap between Tibet and inland China is reflected in the educational gap. In rural areas and herdsmen's areas, primary school students start learning in the mother tongue , Tibetan. From the second and third grade, they start learning Mandarin. This arrangement depends on the educational facilities in hand, especially on the availability of teachers. As for English, in Lhasa and other cities with a good educational founda tion, English teaching is available from primary school. But generally speaking, English teaching starts from junior higher school, that is, from the seventh year in school. I think there are enough teachers to meet this demand.

"In our school, the students have diversified interests in terms of subjects. Many are interested in language and science. Most are interested in science, I would say.

"(As for those who go into monasteries at a young age and might miss out on the benefits of modern education): according to our law on compulsory schooling, all children must be educated. They must receive at least six years of compulsory schooling and, after that, they can make their own choice. In the past, as you mention, it was different. But children being sent to monasteries at a young age are not a general phenomenon now.

"(As for your question relating to the general developing country phenomenon of girls outscoring boys in school): It is similar here. India and China are both developing countries, so it is useful for us to have more contacts and exchanges."

The Next Generation - The state of education in Tibet

2. "Socio-economic conditions and colonialism," a chapter in the White Paper posted by the Dharmasala-based 'government of Tibet in exile' at:

3. Tibetan Education: Yesterday and Today, China Intercontinental Press, Beijing,1997, pp. 17-18.

4. The Development of Tibetan Culture, Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, Beijing, 2000, p. 26.

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