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Education in Tibet, 1950-1995

The education given to Chinese children in Tibet is far superior to that available to Tibetans. Tibetan language and culture are treated as a handicap, and few Tibetans graduate to secondary school. Those that do face little choice of employment unless they speak fluent Chinese. Official Chinese figures show that children of Chinese immigrants in Tibet make up 37% of the child population, yet they occupy 35% of the places in secondary schools. According to sources in Lhasa, the real figure is closer to 60%. The system also perpetuates racial discrimination and is explicitly geared to destroying political dissent.

Sent to China

In the last 30 years, the Chinese have built over 1,000 schools in Tibet, but standards are much lower than in China, and many rural areas have no schools at all. Many children are sent away to China for education. In 1992, there were 10,000 such children in China. While they receive a better education than they would in Tibet, many of these children return to Tibet after seven years speaking only Chinese.

Primary Education

The Chinese admit that only 54% of school-aged children in the Tibet Autonomous Region go to school (Beijing Review, 1990). After reforms in the 1980s, Tibetan became the teaching medium in primary schools. However, Chinese language is used in secondary schools. Tibetan children who get into secondary school are therefore at a serious disadvantage compared with their Chinese classmates, who receive all their education in the same language.

Secondary Education

According to the 1982 official Chinese census (Zhongguo 1982 nian renkou pucha ziliao, 1985; pp 240), only 5% of Tibetan children in the TAR continue their education beyond primary school. Of those children who do continue, only one third complete the six years of secondary school The Tibetan rate for senior school education is just one quarter of the Chinese national average and for Tibetan junior middle school education it is just one seventh of the national rate (Tibet Information Network TIN, 1990).

Excepting the children of Tibetan officials, Tibetans and Chinese are segregated at school. Chinese classes get better teachers and better facilities. According to official Chinese statistics, of 1,700 teachers working in secondary schools in the TAR in 1986, only 38% were Tibetan. Because of the language difficulties, Tibetan classes drop behind and are unable to finish the syllabus. In exams, not only are they competing against children who are using their mother tongue, they are also confronted with topics which they have never been properly taught. An examination allowance of 20 points, given to Tibetan children to make up for the language handicap, is presented as a magnanimous gesture towards Tibetan students because they are alleged to be less intelligent than Chinese.

Tertiary Education

At tertiary level, Tibetans are generally channelled into the field of Tibetan studies. This is the only area where serious academic research by Tibetans is flourishing, although this too is often hampered by the need to adhere to the official view of Tibetan history.

In Tibet the average number of people with a university education is 574 per 100,000 compared to the national Chinese average of 1,422 per 100,000 (TIN, 1990). At Tibet University, only 44% of the pupils are Tibetan. Lower entrance marks are required compared with other universities in the People's Republic of China (PRC). Consequently, less well-qualified Chinese, who are not residents of the TAR, go to Tibet to study, reducing the number of places available for Tibetans. The science and mathematics departments are almost entirely Chinese. The opportunities for Tibetans to study overseas are also limited. Only 166 people from the Tibet Autonomous Region are registered as working or studying abroad (TIN News Supplement, 20/02/91).

All teaching at Tibet University is done in Chinese except in the Tibetan Language, Tibetan Art and Tibetan Medicine departments. The Chinese Statistical Yearbook (1986) states that only 27% of university teachers in TAR are Tibetan. The recruitment of teachers from central China creates two problems:

  • Given the low prestige of working in Tibet, many of the Chinese teachers have few, if any, qualifications, but still earn significantly more than Tibetan teachers.
  • There is a serious lack of continuity as teachers come and go. Between 1986 and 1988, the Head of English at Tibet University changed four times.

Education and Politics

Before 1950, Tibet had an extensive education system, mainly religious in content and run chiefly through the monasteries, although there were also a number of secular schools. Religious teaching is forbidden now, except in the monasteries, but even there it is severely restricted. Marxist ideology is made paramount at every level of education. Emphasis is placed on the alleged historic unity of Tibet with China and the 'evils' of the old society. In December 1989, after the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, armed soldiers were installed at the entrances to university buildings and no student was allowed in or out for 12 days. After this period, students had to do two weeks military training and two weeks political re-education.

Propaganda drives to increase the political control and content of school education in Tibet have intensified notably since September 1994. Beijing announced a three year "colourful patriotic education" drive in Tibet aimed at, amongst other groups, children aged 6-16 (United Press International). A campaign was also started at Tibet University which included lectures to rewrite Tibet's past and aimed at the "Dalai Clique" (China's term for the government in exile; Xizang Ribao newspaper, Lhasa 11/4/94).

The slightest display of nationalism among schoolchildren leads to severe penalties. Six pupils from No.1 Middle School in Lhasa were arrested in 1989 for making a copy of the Tibetan national flag and for pasting up pro-independence leaflets. Three of the students were sent to Drapchi Prison. One died, allegedly from ill-treatment. Another was sentenced to an indefinite term of "re-education" at a juvenile detention centre. In 1990, further student from the same school was reportedly arrested for giving a Tibetan nationalist flag to a monk. She received a three-year term of re-education through labour and is now held in Gutsa, a detention centre notorious for the use of torture.

In February 1994, the largest non-government school in Lhasa was closed down by the security forces. The director, a Tibetan Lama, was arrested on suspicion of involvement in counter-revolutionary activities. These crackdowns are especially disturbing in the context of official calls for fresh introduction of socialist education in schools all over Tibet.


Despite official statements to the contrary, Chinese continues to be the teaching medium in schools. In July 1988, Dorje Tsering, then chairman of the TAR Government, said: "When we speak of using Tibetan language in education, we are accused of wanting to split the motherland."

The structural imbalance in the education system contributes to serious unemployment among Tibetans. Tibetans have greater difficulty in getting a job in state work units where, despite official pronouncements, the working language is still Chinese. If they get work outside the state system, they receive lower rations of basic foods and only limited access to commodities such as electric cooking facilities and bicycles.

In addition there is a serious illiteracy problem in the TAR. Senior TAR government cadre Danzim has said that illiteracy is still rampant in Tibet, with 45% of Tibetans over the age of 15 either semi or totally illiterate. (United Press International 4/10/94). This may be an improvement on Tibetan illiteracy figures in China's 1982 census, but it still represents three times the average Chinese rate of 15%.

Discrimination against Tibetan students at all levels of education and the official hindrance of educational initiative by Tibetans both clearly demonstrate the Chinese policy of leaving Tibetans uneducated and disadvantaged. Such discriminatory and colonial policies in Tibet allow the Chinese authorities to give job preference and other advantages to Chinese settlers, under the pretext that Tibetans are underqualified.

All attempts to discuss Tibet are bedevilled by the Chinese redefinition of the country's borders since 1949. Tibet Support Group UK uses the term Tibet to refer to the three original provinces of U Tsang, Kham and Amdo (sometimes called Greater Tibet). When the Chinese refer to Tibet they invariably mean the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) which includes only one province, U Tsang (the TAR was formally inaugurated in 1965). In 1949 the other two provinces, Amdo and Kham, were renamed by the Chinese as parts of China proper and became the province of Qinghai and parts of Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces.

Tibet Support Group UK campaigns for the right of the Tibetan people to decide their own future and for an end to violation of their fundamental rights and freedoms. It is independent of all governments and is funded solely by its members and supporters.

Tibet Support Group UK publishes a series of information sheets under three headings:
Tibet Facts: TSG-authored documents on history, politics etc.,
Tibet File: Source Documents such as government resolutions, official declarations and expert essays,
Tibet Action: Campaign advice.

For a full list of these sheets and other information about our publications please do not hesitate to contact us.

Tibet Support Group UK
9 Islington Green
London N1 2XH
Telephone +44 (0)171 359 7573
Fax +44 (0)171 354 1026
e.mail: tibetsupport@gn.apc.org

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