Education is nominally free and compulsory for children ages 7 to 16. For the year 2000, the adult illiteracy rate was estimated at 10.1% (males, 5.3%; females, 14.6%). The government has been responsible for public education since 1905; free secondary education began in 1946, but with far too few public schools to meet the need. Several long-term projects have been initiated to increase literacy and raise living standards among the adults of the remote Sierra and Selva areas. In March 1972, new education legislation enhanced the central authority of the Ministry of Education, granting the government control over all teaching appointments in the public schools and increasing its authority over the private sector. The legislation provided for adult literacy instruction and instituted the concept of a fully staffed six-grade "nuclear" school to serve the rural population. The 1972 law also established Quechua and Aymará as languages of instruction for non-Spanish-speaking Amerindians, especially in the lowest grades. As of 1999, public expenditure on education was estimated at 3.2% of GDP.
As of the early 1980s, the educational system consisted of three levels: nurseries and kindergartens; basic education, consisting of primary and secondary schools; and higher education (preuniversity and university). In 1998 there were 4,185,489 pupils enrolled in primary schools. The number of secondary school students in 1997 was 1,969,501 students, with 106,614 teachers. The pupil-teacher ratio at the primary level was estimated at 25 to 1 in 1999.
Institutions of higher education had 45,443 teachers and enrolled 657,586 students in 1997. There is a national university in virtually every major city; the oldest is the National University of San Marcos of Lima, originally founded in 1551. The National University of Engineering and the National University of Agriculture are specialized governmental institutions. The University of San Cristóbal de Huamanga in Ayacucho, founded in the 17th century, was reopened in 1960 and offers mainly technical training. Peru's hard-pressed universities can accept only a fraction of each year's applicants.