Xie Guodong

Xie Guodong, Secretary General of the Chinese Adult Education Association
(CAEA), provides a comprehensive overview of the situation
of adult education in China, of its aims, role and achievements not
only in the fields of literacy and rural development, but also in higher

Adult Education in China: Present Situation,
Achievements and Challenges

I. Adult Education is an Important Part of the Educational
Cause in China

1. Adult education has been enjoying the government’s due
emphasis in China

Since the eighties of the 20th century, China has been implementing two important strategies of “opening up to the outside world” and “focusing on economic construction”. To satisfy the modernization drive’s demand for competent laborers and specialized talents in various fields, the Chinese government has been attaching high importance to the development of adult education and making a series of important policies to promote the development of China’s adult education.

  • In the Decision on the Reform and Development of Adult Education (issued in June 1987), it is clearly pointed out that: “Adult education is an important part of the whole educational cause. In the whole educational cause, adult education enjoys the same importance as basic education, vocational and technical education and regular higher education.”


  • In the Decision on the Further Reform and Development of Higher Education for Adults (issued in January 1993), it is put forward that: “Various social forces should be mobilized to support and promote the development of various forms of higher education for adults at different levels, and to further strengthen and enlarge the opportunities and channels for all citizens to receive higher education.”


  • In the Outline for the Reform and Development of Education in China (issued in February 1993), it is stated that adult education, as a new type of education, is to develop traditional school education into lifelong education, and that energetic efforts have to be made to develop vocational and adult education at various levels.


  • In the Education Law of the People’s Republic of China (adopted in March 1995), it is clearly emphasized that: “The state implements the adult education system.... The state encourages the development of different forms of adult education so as to enable all citizens to receive appropriate professional and lifelong education in the fields of politics, economics, culture, science and technology.... A lifelong education system should be established and improved step by step.” All these provisions have guaranteed the legitimate position of adult education and promoted the development of adult education.

Furthermore, the Chinese government has also adopted a series of other important documents such as “Action Program for Vitalizing Education for the 21st Century” and “Decision on Deepening Educational Reform and Promoting Competence Education”, emphasizing the “fundamental establishment” and “gradual improvement” of a lifelong education system and a lifelong learning system. Obviously, this shows that the Chinese government has deepened the understanding of adult education in view of the strategy of national development in the new century.

 At the 16th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party held in November 2001, the “development of a lifelong-learning-based society and promotion of citizens’ all-round development” was made one of the objectives of the nation’s “overall construction of a well-off society”. As an important part of the lifelong learning system and a key means for realizing a learning-based society, adult education is believed to enjoy faster development.

2. Aim and tasks of adult education

It is acknowledged that adult education should be viewed in a new perspective and from a strategic angle.

The fundamental aim of adult education is to enable all citizens with the ability to live, work and labor to realize all-round development through developing their personal resources, improving their knowledge and skills and optimizing their personality in accordance with different needs in life, work and learning.

Adult education targets all citizens (or all learners). The society, the state and governments at all levels should advocate and publicize the idea of lifelong learning and provide educational facilities to meet the needs of adult learners, help them utilize various learning resources and create an ideal social environment for lifelong learning.

Specifically, adult education should fulfill the following tasks:
(1) To provide remedial basic education to those citizens who have failed to complete basic education and secondary education; 
(2) To offer pre-employment training according to employment needs to help those looking for jobs to meet standards of ideological development, moral cultivation, cultural knowledge, vocational skills and practical ability; 
(3) To offer continuous education to specialist professional personnel to help them adapt themselves to rapid social progress and technological development; 
(4) To provide varieties of socio-cultural and life education to all citizens to satisfy their increasing spiritual demands; and 
(5) To satisfy individuals’ needs for personal development and assist individuals and social groups to seize personal and social opportunities for overcoming future challenges.

To view adult education as a whole, it will play an important role in the establishment of the lifelong education system and the formation of a learning-based society in China.

3. Statistics of adult schools at various levels throughout the country in 2001

Table 1 shows the basic situation of various kinds of adult education institutions and reflects the present situation of adult education in China.



(in 10,000)

New entrants
(in 10,000)

Total enrollment
(in 10,000)

Teachers and staff
(in 10,000)

1. Tertiary institutions for adults






2. Secondary schools for adults






(1) Specialized secondary schools for adults






(2) Secondary schools for adults






(3) Technical training schools for adults






3. Primary schools for adults






(1) Primary schools for workers






(2) Primary schools for farmers






(3) Literacy classes






Source: Brief Statistics of Educational Development in China, Bureau of Planning, Ministry of Education, Frebruary 2002.

II. Achievements of Adult Education in China

Due to the leadership of the Chinese government and the joint efforts of the Chinese people, adult education in China has obtained remarkable achievements in the past 20 years.

1. Illiteracy has been eliminated from the young and middleaged population

In February 1988, the Chinese government promulgated the Regulations on Literacy Education. It is provided: “All the illiterate and semiliterate citizens at the ages from 15 to 40, except those without the ability to receive literacy education, shall enjoy the right and obligation to receive literacy education, regardless of sex, nationality or race”. As a result of decades of unremitting efforts, China had basically eliminated illiteracy from the young and middle-aged population by the end of 2000. On March 28, 2001, the National Statistics Bureau published the main data of the 5th National Census in 2000, revealing that the illiteracy rate among the people in the age group 15–50 had decreased to below 5% of the total population.

Table 2: Changes of the Total Number of Illiterate People since 1949







Number of illiterates (in hundret millions)






illiteracy rate (%)






Changes of the Total Number of Illiterate People since 1949

Source: Published statistics of the 5th National Census in 2000.

It should be specially pointed out that great achievements have been obtained in literacy education for women. Accordingly, the illiteracy rate of women has decreased by a large margin and the cultural competence of women greatly improved, thus playing an important role in heightening women’s social position and emancipating their ideas.

Table 3: Changes of the Number of Illiterate Women since 1982






Number of illiterate adult women (in hundred millions)





Illiteracy rate of adult women (%)





Number of illiterates among young and middle-aged women (in ten thousands)





Illiteracy rate among young and middle-aged women (%)





Changes of the Number of Illiterate Women since 1982

Source: Published statistics of the 5th National Census in 2000.

2. A rural adult Education network at county, township and village levels has been basically established

During the period 1986–2000, altogether 867,434,800 farmers received adult education. In the fifth Five-Year Plan (1996–2000), 456,000,000 person/time farmers were trained. So far, the rural technical training schools have covered 93% of counties, 94% of townships and 64.4% of villages, and other learning institutions such as specialized secondary schools for farmers, secondary schools for farmers and primary schools for farmers have also been set up in rural areas throughout the country, forming a rural adult education network covering the counties, townships and villages of the country. At the same time, the steady improvement in the training quality and level has resulted in huge economic and social benefits.

3. On-the-job training and continuous education have effectively improved the skills of workers

According to relevant statistics, an average of more than 30 million workers receive various forms of on-the-job training each year; several million specialist technical personnel receive continuous education each year; and several million serving officials are trained each year. By offering effective training activities, adult education has remarkably improved the overall skills of those in work and has played an important role in the socialist modernization drive.

4. Tertiary education institutions for adults have produced specialist personnel

Adult higher education has emerged to satisfy the practical needs of the development of the socialist economy, science and technology and the modernization drive. With those in work as the target, adult higher education is aimed at training qualified talent for the front line of production and management. As indicated above, there were 686 tertiary education institutions for adults in China in 2001, including 45 broadcast and television universities, 409 tertiary institutions for workers, 3 tertiary institutions for farmers, 104 colleges of managerial officials, 122 teacher colleges and 3 independent correspondence colleges. In addition, there were also other evening universities and correspondence colleges sponsored by regular institutions of higher learning.

Table 4: Development of Adult Higher Education during 1997–2001







New students enrolled (in ten thousands)






Total enrollment (in ten thousands)






Number of graduates (in ten thousands)







Adult colleges and universities have not only offered opportunities for all citizens to receive higher education, but also satisfied the learning needs of those in work. At the same time, a large number of specialist personnel in short supply have been produced. So far, adult education has become an important means for the development and popularization of higher education in China.

It should be specially stressed here that the establishment of the national examination system for self-learners in higher education is a new type of higher education which integrates self-learning, social sponsorship and national examinations. This type of education has broken the limitations of time, space, norms and content on adult education and created ideal conditions for lifelong learning.

Table 5: Numbers of Candidates and Graduates of Self- Learningbased Higher Education in China during 1997–2001







Number of candidates (in ten thousands)






Qualified graduates (in ten thousands)






Numbers of Candidates and Graduates of Self- Learningbased Higher Education in China during 1997–2001

The above statistics show that self-learning-based higher education is full of vital power. It can be said the establishment of the self-learn- ing-based higher education system is an important measure to realize the principle of “encouraging citizens to become talented through self-learning”, as provided in the Constitution, and also a new channel to cultivate and select qualified talents. In a deeper sense, it is a fundamental policy to establish the self-learning-based higher education system for realizing lifelong education in China.

5. Preliminary achievements have been made in the experiment of constructing a lifelong education system and building a learning-based society

In order to construct the lifelong education system it is necessary to build a learning-based society. With the Chinese government’s encouragement and support, the local educational authorities at different levels have made great efforts to develop community education and have included the development of community education in the government’s key agenda for the purpose of promoting educational reform, building up the lifelong education system and forming a learn- ing-based society. At present, there are in China 28 pilot zones of community education, involving 17 provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities and 5 specially planned cities identified by the Ministry of Education. What is more, the pilot zones of community education are now expanding to the townships of the developed regions. It is certain that the development of community education will accelerate the pace of the construction of the lifelong education system and a learning-based society in China.

6. The age limit has been broken for the development of senior citizen education

As a developing country with the largest population in the world, China is confronted with the very serious problem of an aging population. According to relevant census statistics, by the end of 2000, there were 132 million people aged above 60, accounting for 10.32% of China’s total population and a fifth of the world’s aged people. Moreover, the trend towards an aging population in China is becoming more and more serious. It was in September 1983 that China’s first university for senior citizens was created in Shandong Province and enjoyed the Chinese government’s encouragement and support. Now, there are in the country more than 5,000 universities for senior citizens with a total enrollment of nearly a million senior citizens. In some regions, multi-channeled and multi-formed networks of education for senior education have been preliminarily set up. All these networks of sen ior citizen education have provided learning opportunities for aged people and enriched their life with various learning activities.

7. The study of adult education serves as the forerunner of adult education development

Along with the rapid progress of adult education, the study of adult education has also extensively expanded. As a result, there has developed a strong contingent of full-time and part-time researchers from the administrative sectors of adult education, research institutions, adult education institutions and academic organizations of adult education. In addition, there are dozens of magazines and newspapers on adult education, with “Adult Education in China” as the leading magazine. In the national plans for educational research projects from the seventh Five-Year Plan to the tenth Five-year Plan, quite a number of research projects on adult education have been included as national key projects, including such projects as “A Study of the Methods of Post-Upper Secondary Education” and “A Study of the On-the-job Training System in China” by Prof. Dong Mingchuan, “On the Development of China’s Adult Education toward the 21st Century” by Prof. Huang Yaoxian, and “A Study of Literacy Education in China” jointly by Prof. Yu Bo and Prof. Xie Guodong. The increase in research achievements and the improvement in the research level have energetically promoted the progress of adult education in China.

III. Challenges

Although great achievements have been made in the development of adult education in China, there still exists a giant gap between the development of adult education and the needs of individual citizens’ learning activities and the socialist modernization drive. Today, along with the profound changes in various fields of social life in the new century, the development of adult education is confronted with both opportunities and challenges.

  • In a learning-based society in the 21st century, one must be able to learn before being able to be. However, many people today are still shackled by the traditional idea of just-for-once education and they are lacking in the concept and action of lifelong learning.


  • In the 21st century, all citizens in various social sectors are required to bring into full play their creativity and ability and take an active part in social progress. But, society today cannot provide citizens with enough opportunity to receive adult education.


  • Although the 21st century is an age in which knowledge dominates development, the present shortage and unbalanced distribution of educational resources threaten a widening gap between urban areas and rural areas, between the eastern regions and western regions, and between rich people and poor people.


  • Globalization and technical innovations in the 21st century are increasingly influencing individuals’ lives and social activities, and citizens’ career changes are becoming closely connected with adult learning. In this sense, the content of adult education must be expanded to the whole life of all citizens and linked up with the renewal and improvement of citizens’ vocational skills and ideas.


  • As far as adult education is concerned, the lack of due emphasis by the whole of society on adult education, of an efficient management system and operation mechanism, of the integration of adult education with economic and social progress, of enough financial investment in adult education and of new teaching content and methods will restrict the full play of adult education’s role in the construction of a learning-based society.

We have obtained inspiring achievements in the development of adult education, and the challenges are also opportunities. Therefore, we must make bolder efforts to realize the important role of adult education in the establishment of the lifelong education system and a learning-based society and in the promotion of citizens’ all-round development.

Adult Education and Development


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