Prior to 1949, schools were available for less than 40% of school-age children; 85% of the people were illiterate. During 1949–59, school attendance increased nearly fourfold. In 1959, about 50 million children received preschool education; primary schooling was nearly universal, with some 92.6 million students (between 85% and 90% of all school-age children) in primary schools; 12 million were in secondary schools. By 1966, total school enrollment in China reached 116 million, with the average pupil receiving 5.5 years of formal schooling.
The Cultural Revolution affected education more than any other sector of society. Schools were shut down in mid-1966 to give the student Red Guards the opportunity to "make revolution" on and off campus. The Cultural Revolution touched off purges within the educational establishment. Upper- and middle-level bureaucrats throughout the system were removed from office, and virtually entire university faculties and staffs dispersed. Although many lower schools had begun to reopen during 1969, several universities remained closed through the early 1970s, as an estimated 10 million urban students were removed to the countryside to take part in labor campaigns. During this period and its aftermath, revolutionary ideology, and local conditions became the principal determinants of curriculum. A nine-year program of compulsory education (compressed from 12 years) was established for youths 7–15 years of age.
Education was reoriented in 1978 under the Four Modernizations policy, which restored the pre-1966 emphasis on competitive examinations and the development of special schools for the most promising students. The most striking changes were effected at the junior and senior high school levels, in which students were again streamed, according to ability, into an estimated 5,000 high-quality, well-equipped schools, or into lower-quality high schools, or into the technical and vocational schools, which were perceived as the least prestigious. In addition, 96 universities, 200 technical schools, and 7,000 primary schools were designated as "key" institutions. Universities were reopened, with a renewed emphasis given to science and technology. During the 1980s, having universal primary education instituted by 1990 became a main goal.
By 1998, there were 628,840 primary schools with 5,794,000 teachers and 139,954,000 students. Student-to-teacher ratio stood at 24 to 1. At the secondary level, there were 4,437,000 teachers and 718,883,000 students. As of 1999, 93% of primary-school-age children were enrolled in school. For the year 2000, adult illiteracy rates (per UNESCO) were estimated at 15.0% (males, 7.7%; females, 22.6%). In 1995, public expenditure on education was 2.2% of GDP.
In 1985 there were 1,016 colleges and universities in China. Among the largest and most prestigious institutions were Beijing University and Qinghua University, both in Beijing; Zhongshan University, in Guangzhou; Nanjing University and Nanjing Institute of Technology; Nankai University and Tianjin University, in Tianjin; and Fudan University, in Shanghai. Graduate education resumed in the late 1970s; the number of graduates increased from 147,111 in 1981 to 645,510 in 1991. By 1998, the number of students enrolled in post-secondary institutions totaled 6,075,215, with 516,400 teachers.
Tuition has traditionally been free in vocational secondary schools, and in training schools for elementary teachers, as well as in colleges and universities; students in need of food, clothing, and textbooks receive state grants-in-aid. Primary and general secondary school students pay a nominal tuition fee. Part-time primary and secondary schools, evening universities, and correspondence schools exist for adult workers and peasants.