2017-09-01 17:44:37

Students on welfare might want to steer clear of internet cafés, makeup, and fancy smartphones from now on.

In an attempt to curb abuse of subsidies for disadvantaged students, education authorities in Shaanxi, a province in northwestern China, published a list of criteria that will void people’s eligibility to receive stipends, China Business News reported Wednesday.

The financial aid, which in Shaanxi amounts to 6,000 yuan ($900) per year, is given to students who receive little spending money from family, whose parents are jobless, or who qualify in a number of other ways.

But verifying whether students truly qualify is difficult. As with other forms of welfare for impoverished families, cases of fraud and bribery are common. According to a study by Tsinghua University in 2010, only 47 percent of poor university students received financial aid, whereas 64 percent of beneficiaries were not in need of assistance according to the established criteria.

The guideline from the Shaanxi education department will remove students from financial support if their families invest in or own companies, have luxury homes or cars, or have a habit of buying expensive phones, computers, clothes, or cosmetics. Frequent travel and significantly higher spending than their peers are also seen as violations, as is living off-campus.

But the item that raised the most eyebrows was that students who frequent internet cafés would also lose their eligibility. Many net users posited that these visits might not be simply to pass the time, but to do homework. And even if students were to go there to play games, they asked, why should they be deprived of their right to cheap entertainment?

In response, the education department said on Wednesday that its intention was to target students who frequently go to internet bars for purposes other than studying, which can be done using computers at school. In addition, the guideline’s off-campus housing standard refers to students who eschew accommodation in dorms “without the proper reasons.”

Universities have tried excluding richer applicants by filtering students whose spending habits exceed a certain level, but in some cases, this rule still hurts those in need. In 2016, a university student lost his financial aid because his family had saved up for months to buy him a pair of Nike shoes — on sale at 60 percent off.

In 2015, Huazhong Agricultural University, in central China’s Hubei province, announced a rule that students who were among the top 10 percent of school cafeteria spenders would no longer qualify as “poor” — a controversial decision, many thought, in part because students with less money to spend tend to eat on campus.

Other schools, meanwhile, have taken the opposite approach. Since 2004, the University of Science and Technology of China, in eastern China’s Anhui province, has looked at data from its canteens to give out money to students who spend less than 200 yuan per month. The university received praise because it was able to help needy students discreetly, without the risk of them losing face.

In one respect, the plight of China’s poorer students has improved. A notice earlier this year from the Ministry of Education urged schools to protect the privacy of students who receive aid, and banned the occasional practice of asking students to publicly describe to a committee in what way their families were poor, and why they should qualify for financial assistance.

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: Young people play online games at an internet café in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, Jan. 16, 2011. Hu Yuanjia/VCG)