China rural dropout rate 'will widen income gap'

BEIJING • Like many other teenagers in his village in the mountains of the north-western province of Shaanxi, Chen Youliang decided to quit school early so he could follow in the footsteps of his migrant worker parents and find a job in a big city.

Mr Chen, who left school at 17 and is now 20, works as a cook in a small restaurant in Xian, the provincial capital of Shaanxi province.

He is among the three million students in China's rural areas who quit school each year without completing high school. Although there are no official statistics, studies by various research institutions say one in three students in villages quit school every year before earning a high school diploma, reported Caixin magazine on its website.

Compared with students in more developed regions, boys and girls in the rural areas quit school at a much younger age.

Experts have warned that "if dropout rates continue as they are today, increasing unemployment and widening inequality could hinder economic growth and stability on a national scale".

Surprisingly, poverty is not the major reason students leave school, said Ms Yi Hongmei, a rural policy researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who pointed out that only 8 per cent of students said they left school for financial reasons.

Nearly half of the dropouts surveyed by the Rural Education Action Project, which involves the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Stanford University and several Chinese universities, said they quit to find work so they could "broaden their horizons and enjoy new experiences". Another 30 per cent said they left because "everyone else is doing it".

Rising wages for low-level jobs also made the lure of city life irresistible to many young villagers, reported Caixin.

Last year, the annual income of a rural resident of the poorest parts of Shaanxi was 7,600 yuan (S$1,600), whereas a migrant worker can earn around 36,000 yuan a year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2016, with the headline 'China rural dropout rate 'will widen income gap''. Print Edition | Subscribe