“‘So you have put on reading glasses and now speak with lower voice after just half a year of university study’, my wife always laughs at me and says. ‘If you had worked this hard earlier, you would have passed the college entrance examination’,” 50-year-old Wang Wenbin, chairman of Doushizhuang Village Committee, Linyi County, Jiaobei Township, said. “It’s as if I have become a different person after attending university.”

At the beginning of 2018, the “Capacity and Quality Improvement Project for Major Cadres of Rural Village Party Branch Committees and Villagers Committees in Linyi County” was launched with the cooperation of Linyi County and Yuncheng Radio and TV University (RTVU). 347 village cadres like Wang Wenbin began their university education together.

Secretary Yu Pengfei of the CPC Linyi Committee explained, “We have to depend on people to implement important tasks such as poverty alleviation or rural revitalisation. Major cadres from village Party branch committees and villagers committees (also known as the “two committees”) have to receive systematic and professional education. This is a foundation project and important strategic focus for us to strengthen rural primary-level organisations, stabilise rural foundation work, and improve the professional abilities of grassroots rural cadres.”

On 30 July 2018, the reporter visited Linyi to look into the ability and quality improvement project for rural cadres in the “two committees”.

How to stimulate enthusiasm for learning: Government subsidised tuition, flexible and diverse school system, and orientation encouragement in cadre selection

The number 3.1% turned out to be particularly embarrassing for Linyi and is the most direct trigger point for the project of major rural cadres in the “two committees” in Linyi to go to university.

When the election of new leaders for the “two committees” of villages and communities in Linyi was completed at the end of 2017, CPC Linyi County Committee discovered that only 20 people had an educational background at or above junior college level among the 638 major cadres of the “two committees” in the county’s 375 administrative villages, accounting for only 3.1 percent of the total.

Major cadres from the “two committees” act as bellwethers for rural areas, and are a major forces to promote rural social progress. They are also the main organisers and implementers of the rural revitalisation strategy. However, their current knowledge level made it difficult to shoulder this historic mission. As a result, Linyi County decided to implement the capacity and quality improvement project for major rural cadres in the “two committees,” explained Peiliang Hao, a standing member and head of the Organisation Department of the CPC Linyi County Committee.

In order to stimulate the enthusiasm of the rural cadres to enrol and learn, Linyi County and the RTVU have reached a cooperation agreement: the county government subsidises each student CNY 2,000 using funds from the government finance, the RTVU reduces the fee by CNY 1,500 for each student, and each individual student pays CNY 1,800. The students obtain a junior college graduation certificate from the Open University of China (OUC) after two and a half years of study. It is estimated that 80 percent of major rural cadres in the “two committees” will have their education raised to the level at or above junior college within 3-5 years.

Would the several hundred secretaries of village Party branches and chairmen of village committees be willing to pick up their pens again, even at an advanced age?

Xie Yunfei, secretary of the CPC Qiji Township Committee, said that he had made the requirement that each township leader be responsible for “ideological work” in six villages in order to encourage the cadres to go to university. Little did he know that a great tide of enthusiasm would take over the village cadres as soon as the mobilisation meeting in the township was over. The number of cadres applying for enrolment surpassed the quota allocated by the township and the township had to persuade the cadres who failed to enrol to wait until the next class.

This was only the situation in Qiji Townwhip. Other townships were also trying to get places at the university. The attempt to get the offer seemed unexpected but was indeed reasonable.

When these grassroots cadres first took office, they felt an urgent need to improve their abilities triggered by their desire to get down to business. With the full implementation of the rural revitalisation strategy, they became aware of their lacking abilities and the pressure gave them the incentive to learn. At the 2016 township leadership election, 19 people were elected to deputy township leading positions from the secretaries of rural village Party branches, the village officials of college students, and staff members of the township institutions in Linyi County in line with the policies formulated by the higher government and Party committee. Among them were five village cadres. According to the requirements of the CPC Shanxi Provincial Committee to strengthen the building of primary-level organisations, primary work, and primary capacity (“three primaries construction”) in 2018, township civil servants and staff members from township government institutions were employed through examinations from excellent secretaries of village or community Party organisations. These measures have given grassroots cadres fresh momentum to improve their own abilities. Furthermore, the reduction of fees, the flexible school system, the down-to-earth learning content, and other practical and innovative operations have all increased their enthusiasm for learning.

42-year-old Yang Haibin, secretary of Quiqifang Village Party Branch in Qishi Township, said, “I have long held vice leadership positions. Today, I serve as secretary of the village and the pressure and responsibility on my shoulders is great. This is a very good opportunity. So why not go for it? I am the first to sign up in the township!”

How to ensure the effectiveness of learning?: Special curriculum, teaching model, and management measures

Special age group: spanning 20-50+ years old, all at different ages;

Special foundations: Some have senior middle schooling and others have graduated from polytechnic schools or technological schools, all at different knowledge levels;

Special jobs: With so many village affairs and a great many cadres doing farm work for their own households, it is difficult to ensure and unify a time for learning.

Faced with these unusual characteristics, Linyi County and the RTVU had to explore a set of special approaches.

Special curriculum: Learn what is useful and necessary and make up for what the curriculum is short of. In the first semester, six courses were offered, such as Rural Administrative Management, Rural Sanitation and Health Care, and Folk Culture. The follow-up courses include Rural Policies and Regulations, Land Use Planning, and Rural Environment Protection. The aim is to ensure that the students are willing to learn, will be able to learn well, and can put what they learn into practice.

Special teaching model: Autonomous learning + group activities + face-to-face tutorials. At the beginning of the semester, the RTVU gave a centralised training in computer operation skills to make sure that each student can teach themselves the courses online. The students were divided into learning groups according to township to implement the “3 + 3 + 3” learning assistance mechanism: one third of excellent students gave assistance to one third of ordinary students, and one third of poor students will be helped by both teachers and excellent students. The teachers then took the courses they taught to the students into the fields by way of face-to-face tutorials in rural areas.

Special assessments: Process + application. The students’ school records consist of process assessments and final term examinations, with the focus on problem solving. For example, the examination topic for the course Rural Sanitation and Health Care asked the students to write an investigation report following an investigation and evaluation of the sanitary environment in the villages.

Special management: Tutors inside the school + township organisation members. The RTVU tutors are responsible for the organisation and management of teaching activities, while the tutors outside the school served by township organisation members are responsible for the instruction and supervision of routine learning, psychological trends, and assignment completion.

To date, 347 farmer students have completed the first semester. Statistics show a student attendance rate for face-to-face tutorials above 95 percent, a 98 percent assignment completion rate, a 100 percent assignment revision rate, and a course pass rate equivalent to ordinary students.