Girls less likely to continue in school than boys
(see RFA's reporting from China on this issue)
School drop-out rates in Asian countries from Afghanistan to the Philippines are the highest in the world, according to a recent study by the UN cultural agency UNESCO.
While the number of children actually enrolling in school has risen in the last decade, many of them — ; especially girls — ; are dropping out before the end of the primary cycle.
The findings confirm recent investigative reporting by RFA's Mandarin service, which showed many families were pulling their children out of school for financial reasons, in spite of a booming economy.
According to UNESCO, the Asian region still has the world's largest share of out-of-school children at 46 million — ; 45 percent of the worldwide total of 104 million. Only two percent of children in Latin America and the Caribbean were out of school, the report said.
In October 2003, the official media in China reported that around 27 million children nationwide were unable to attend school, representing around 10 percent of China's school-age children. Hong Kong newspapers said the total — ; allowing for gaps in reporting methods — ; could be twice as high in reality.
In a recent interview with RFA, Professor William Lan, an education expert at Texas Tech University in the United States, said that in China, the problem was rooted in a failure to make education a top priority in government spending plans.
"China is shortsighted when it comes to investing in education," Lan said. "Look at Shanghai. It is a very modern metropolis with many high-rise buildings and expressways. How could you believe that China does not have the money for education?"
He said the problem lay with the political system, under which officials are encouraged to pursue quick returns to demonstrate their accomplishments. "They won't consider investing in education as the returns won't show in 10 years, or even in a hundred years," he added.
Other China analysts said the problem was that a Chinese family would sacrifice everything to education, making the government feel it did not need to prioritize learning.
Across the region, enrollment for boys and girls rose substantially from 1990 to 2000. In Laos, net primary enrollment ratios rose by between 15 and 20 percentage points. However, only half of the children who entered school in Laos and Burma reached the end of the primary cycle, the report added. In Cambodia, the equivalent drop-out rate was between 35 percent and 38 percent.
Of all the countries in the region, Malaysia devoted the highest percentage of its gross domestic product (GDP) to education, with 6.2 percent. Burma came in at the bottom of the scale, spending just 1.4 percent of its GDP on schooling.
"[In Laos and Burma], only half the children who enter primary school will reach grade five, indicating a dropout rate of 53 percent, 47 percent, and 45 percent, respectively," with Nepal, Cambodia, and Bangladesh close behind, the report said.
Gender was also a major factor in dropping out, with girls far more likely to be out of school than boys. And as schooling progresses, fewer and fewer girls remain, the report found.
Often negligible at primary level, the disparity in Asia between the number of male versus female students reached 61 percent to 39 percent at university.
"East Asian countries accounted for approximately two-thirds of total enrollment, in large measure due to China, where the total tertiary enrollment exceeds that of all the countries of South and West Asia combined (12.1 and 11.3 million students, respectively)," the report said.
While China's tertiary enrollment looked to be improving to the levels of the region's leaders — ; Macau, Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia — ; some countries were struggling at the bottom of the list, namely Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Laos, it said.