Migrant parents' college bid a no-win war

Updated: 2013-01-12 08:15

By Bai Ping (China Daily)

  Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

An eerie lull has descended as disgruntled migrant parents mull their next move after their latest high-profile campaign hardly improved the chances of their children going to a good college.

But their options may be limited, because they have been entangled in a major education policy impasse that has its roots in the nation's time-honored but outdated household registration system, or hukou. Although everyone is pursuing equal education, some are more equal than others because the hukou restrictions are intrinsically discriminatory.

Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, where most of the country's top universities are located, earmark more seats for local students than those from the rest of the country. In 2011, local applicants were found to be 28-41 times more likely to be admitted to the prestigious Peking University than their counterparts from Henan, Guizhou or Anhui provinces.

To enroll in any good university, students with rural hukou will have to get a much higher score in the national college entrance examination, or gaokao, than those with a city hukou.

The issue has now become salient because migrant workers' children, who number about 20 million, cannot take gaokao in the cities where they live and study. They have to return to their native place that they left a long time ago to face fiercer competition.

The migrant parents' passionate pleas to allow their children to take gaokao with their urban peers have caused deep resentment among urban dwellers who fear losing their privileges, such as higher college admission rates, which are enshrined in the hukou system.

The case for migrants' children has been made more difficult because, if successful, it could perpetuate an already embattled college enrolment system that needs overhaul.

Even architects of gaokao have conceded that holding the same tests has not been helpful in selecting students of diverse backgrounds and abilities, and admissions based mainly on gaokao scores have led to a waste of precious time for students who spend a year just to raise a few points to surge ahead.

But despite its shortcomings, parents from middle or lower social strata would abhor the notion of scrapping gaokao, because they perceive it as the fairest criterion available for admission to college and a major avenue for upward social mobility at a time when social trust is lacking.

For migrant workers seeking equality, it would also be like barking up the wrong tree to ask their children to pioneer in the gaokao reform in an effort to skirt around the opposition from urban residents.

While being sketchy on opening up the general university enrolment system, Beijing has said it will allow migrant workers' children to attend local vocational colleges in 2013, with the option of matriculating from universities after graduating with diplomas in 2014.

The parents considered the offer an insult to their injury. The vocational schools, a key thrust of future Chinese higher education development, are shunned by urban students and plagued by serious shortages of students.

All these factors may help explain why major cities have adopted delaying tactics with such a potentially explosive social problem. In Beijing alone, more than 400,000 students from migrant families are in pre-college education. And thousands of migrant gaokao hopefuls have to leave the city every year.

But migrant parents and children cannot wait indefinitely. One of them, Zhan Haite, went to kindergarten, primary school and junior high school in Shanghai, where she has lived with her family since 2002. Aged 15 now, she has started idolizing Martin Luther King Jr and Aung San Suu Kyi after learning that she cannot take gaokao in the city because she is not a permanent resident.

Who knows which way the discontented group will turn?

The writer is editor-at-large of China Daily. E-mail: dr.baiping@gmail.com

(China Daily 01/12/2013 page5)