How China’s cities bar the door to a better education for migrant students


China is increasingly a nation of university graduates, and that is no mean feat.

The country admits more students to post-secondary schools than any other nation, meaning the average student’s likelihood of achieving collegiate education is on the rise. Reforms since 2000 have increased collegiate admittance on a historic scale: The number of Chinese enrolled in university grew from 1 million in 1998 to 34 million in 2011, by one account, with that number expected to reach 35.5 million by 2020.

Yet where other areas see China’s positive developments magnified by its size, here the figures fail to capture the correspondingly huge gap between those who will benefit most from this growth and those who are likely be left behind—one that has seldom been wider or harder to bridge.

“The market reforms in China have created a more stratified society in rural China,” said Xie Ailei, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Hong Kong specializing in the study of higher education and rural students in China. That is in no small part thanks to the bureaucratic boundaries that often keep students born to parents from one region from attending public school in another.

Non-resident scholars

To discuss education in China means first confronting its tangled household registration system. On the mainland a document known as a hukou classifies Chinese citizens based on their hometown in a given province, which typically goes unchanged throughout one’s lifetime—wherever one might actually live. It determines the region in which a person can receive healthcare, welfare, and education services, benefits that vary considerably from one province to the next.

The result is a yawning gap in social benefits between those from more and less developed regions. The requirements to change one’s official residence vary between provinces, and the established megacities along the eastern coast typically have populations large enough to allow them to implement higher barriers for hukou transfer than less economically developed inland provinces.

Based on data from the National Bureau of Statistics of China for 2013, provinces with GDP per capita above the national average reported 28.63% of their populations were unregistered migrants, while provinces below the national average reported that unregistered migrants made up only 14.02% of their total populations. But the system’s issues extend far beyond just migrant workers themselves.

Chinese students are required to sit the gaokao, or national college entrance exam, in the province in which their hukou is officially registered, and migrant workers’ children are no exception: They can be required travel hundreds of miles to sit the exam far from friends and family in a city they were too young to remember leaving. Universities also enact provincial quotas for student admittance, lowering the threshold for acceptance for local students. The rationale for this policy, as well as the exact quota percentages for individual schools, is not made public. But the college admittance-rate imbalance between students from university-dense and university-sparse provinces is clear enough.

One way to evaluate this disproportionate provincial opportunity is by viewing where China’s most respected universities are located. Project 211 is an ongoing initiative, created by the Ministry of Education in 1995 to build a network of world-famous Chinese universities of high academic quality capable of groundbreaking research.

These roughly 100 universities have long been the focus of China’s expanding educational infrastructure, and are often viewed as a gauge for China’s scholastic progress. But because many of them are clustered in a few, highly developed provinces, and because universities are allowed to favor local students in admissions, students from China’s central and western provinces have a far lower chance of attending a Project 211 university compared to their urban, eastern peers. (See data collected by Yiqin Fu for more.)

In 2013, Shanghai and Beijing were the only provinces that had more than one Project 211 university for every 10,000 test-takers: Roughly 6,000 for every Project 211 school in Shanghai and less than 3,000 in Beijing). Seventeen provinces had one Project 211 university for every 100,000 test-takers. Hebei province has one for every 450,000 test-takers. Henan province sat over 716,00 students but has only a single Project 211 school, Zhengzhou University.

On the inside looking in

Because Chinese public education is tied to hukou status, migrant children typically have three options: Pay fees to attend a local public school (often unaffordable), attend a privately-funded and unauthorized school (usually of low quality), or leave their family to attend school in their province of registered origin.

Due to the decentralization of hukou registration in recent decades (pdf), officials have little incentive to incorporate migrant students into local public education. Parents in major cities also worry about already limited resources being diverted away from their own children to accommodate a larger number of migrant students. And even admitted students face real struggles.

“For those migrant children who successfully enrolled in public schools in cities where their parents work, they still experience the difficulties in identifying themselves as true members of these schools,” Xie said.

“Research, for example, suggests that migrant children enrolled in public schools are sometimes segregated from native students,” he said. “A study in Beijing reported that 40% of migrant children did not have native children friends and 33.7% mentioned they did not want to have native students as their friends since they felt that they were looked down upon by these local students.”

Students who instead choose to study in their registered hometown enjoy none of the quality and abundance of educational resources afforded to those in the urban East. Xie added that research showed that urban students were not only more likely to enroll in ordinary HEIs (Higher Education Institutions), but also showed more interest in attending selective universities located in eastern and urban regions.

“On the contrary, their counterparts from western and rural areas were meaningfully disadvantaged in going to any type of college and university,” he said. “Moreover, they also tended to choose HEIs located in the western and middle parts of China and enrolled in disciplines like education and agricultural studies.”

Rural students also feel a growing pull away from classroom learning and toward factory work. “Recent reports did suggest that the increasing demand for labor will draw rural students out of schools and send them into factories,” Xie said. “College degrees in China promise less and less than ever before, which could possibly hinder [rural parents’] willingness to invest in their children’s education.”

Separate but equal?

As a Henan native accepted into Shanghai’s East China Normal University, Mei Lingjie knows the difficulties faced by those inland all too well.

“It’s harder to prepare for the gaokao in some areas than in others,” she said. “In places like Beijing and Shanghai it’s much easier to find resources and the threshold for getting into college is lower. But it’s still the fairest system, though.”

Research like that (pdf) from the University of Ottawa describing the inter-generational social mobility of 22 countries may eventually upend the thinking underlying such assertions. Said study evaluated countries by the degree to which having higher income relative to one’s peers correlated to the income of one’s parents, and found Denmark to be the most socially mobile country at only 15%. China, on the other hand, placed second to last at 60%, putting the lie to the line that the gaokao system is more meritocratic than not.

Unequal access to resources and incentives to exit education early are perpetuating the predicament facing China’s education system. Indeed, the divide between urban and rural hukou holders has widened to an undeniable margin. That simple truth doesn’t make reality any less complex, though.

“What rural schools are now serving is a student population that is quite diversified in terms of social economic status,” Xie said. As a result he said it had become increasingly clear that the chances for scholastic success can vary dramatically between children from different backgrounds.

“Rural students and their chances in getting access to quality education, therefore, need to be re-examined,” Xie said. The question that remains is what and how long it will take to get the majority of Chinese parents to agree that the status quo is both unfair and increasingly untenable. ♦

Previously in part 1: How the children of China’s elite bypass the national education system.

Author: Andrew Ross

Editor: Hudson Lockett (@KangHexin)