A local government in eastern China is controversially offering free high school education for the third child in a family, as authorities roll out a variety of incentives for couples to have babies amid a record-low birth rate.
After relaxing its one-child policy in January 2016, China introduced a three-child policy in May 2021 in response to the country’s declining birth rate, which is expected to weigh significantly on the country’s economy in decades ahead.
In Weifang, Shandong province, families will not have to pay tuition fees for the third child at high school, according to a policy issued by the city government on Tuesday.
The new rule, which some said impairs educational equality, will apply to babies born after May 31 last year, the government said.
China has nine years of compulsory education for free, followed by three years of paid high school tuition.
The measure is part of a series of incentives Weifang has introduced to stimulate births, including free insurance for major diseases until the third child is three years old, prolonged parental leave and government subsidies for buying property.
Weifang’s offer comes as a slew of local governments around China roll out preferential policies for couples with more than one child.
China’s population fell for the first time in more than six decades last year, declining by about 850,000 people from 2021, according to official figures.
The birth rate dropped to a record low, too, with 6.77 births per 1,000 people last year - the lowest since 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was founded.
While cash rewards and more generous leave benefits have been widely adopted, some local authorities have been more creative.
A day before Weifang’s announcement, Hangzhou in Zhejiang province said families with more than one child will be exempt from a car plate lottery designed to curb traffic and pollution in many major Chinese cities.
In Zezhou county, Shanxi province, students born as the second or third child after January 30, 2013 will automatically have 10 extra points added to their total grades for high school entrance exams, according to a plan issued by the county government at the end of last year.
But many of these policies are criticised as useless in stimulating births and triggered worries over fairness instead.
Xiong Bingqi, director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, said the offers from Weifang and Zezhou would only add to educational anxiety, one of the major issues dampening people’s enthusiasm to raise kids.
“Why on earth can the third child enjoy free education while the first and second can’t? Any policy that involves differential treatment of children will only make matters worse,” he said.
“The point is that many couples are not even willing to have one child. To ease their concerns in education, the key is improving equality.”