Written by Anita Koo.

During the past three decades, China has experienced massive rural-to-urban migration as people leave the farmlands to search for higher income jobs in the cities. Since the beginning of the 2000’s rural migrants have increasingly brought their families with them when they relocate to the cities. In 2010, there were approximately 35.8 million ‘migrant children’, who resided in Chinese cities with their parents, with approximately 20 million of these children being aged between 6 and 14. These migrant children have inherited their parents’ hukou status (i.e. household registration) and officially remain members of the rural population, even if they have lived most of their lives in the cities. They are regarded as ‘non-local children’, who are not entitled to receive any urban welfare benefits, such as educational services.

Since 2003, the Chinese central government has required city governments to accept responsibility for the education of migrant children in public schools. However, migrant families still have to provide legal documents, such as proof of employment and temporary residence when they apply to urban public schools. They are also charged a variety of extra fees when they are admitted to public schools. Therefore, only those migrant children whose parents are both socially and economically well-off can access the compulsory education offered in the cities’ public schools. As most migrant workers are hired as unskilled labour workers in cities, a large proportion of migrant children have to study in substandard private schools for migrant students. Though the status and quality of these schools are questionable, many migrant workers choose to send their children to them, as the tuition is more affordable.

According to the Law on Compulsory Education, migrant children should have the same right to nine years of compulsory education, including six years of primary school and three years of middle school, as the other children in China. In recent years, Chinese leaders have emphatically maintained that the government guarantees basic compulsory education for migrant children in cities. After a series of policy changes, the barriers keeping migrant children from public schools have been gradually removed, and an increasing number of migrant children have been admitted. It is estimated that in big cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, more than half of the school-aged migrant children are now in public schools.

Although migrants’ right to receive compulsory education has been gradually secured, the obstacles these children are faced with when pursuing post-compulsory education are still severe. The Chinese education system consists of nine years of compulsory education, three years of high school (after sitting for zhongkao – the National High School Examination), and four years of college (after sitting for gaokao – the National College Entrance Examination). The scores obtained in the two examinations are the only determinant of admission to high schools and tertiary institutions respectively. Under the current examination system, all children must take the National College Entrance Examination in their ‘place of origin,’ where their household is registered. As a result, migrant children are barred from taking the examinations in cities, even if they graduate from local public schools, and they therefore cannot be admitted to any academic high school based in the cities as they cannot sit for the National College Entrance Examination.

In September 2012, the Ministry of Education issued a document asking local governments to allow migrant children to sit the National College Entrance Examination in their host cities; nevertheless, each local government will have the final say in respect to how new policies arising from this document are implemented. Big cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, have still not opened the public examinations to non-local students. Migrant children are, in effect, denied access to the public post-compulsory academic system if they stay in the cities. Obviously, purchasing an admission to private high schools that can offer preparation for an overseas university education is too expensive and unattainable for the majority of these migrant families. Due to the rural-urban educational inequality and the lack of social and cultural connections to ‘home’, returning to their rural hometowns for high school also fails to offer migrant children a reasonable chance at university entrance upon graduation. Under this situation, the only available option for post-compulsory education is to study at the vocational high schools which started admitting migrant children in the late 2000s.

In China, vocational education has long held lower status than academic education, as it mainly leads to practical and labouring type jobs as opposed to white-collar occupations. After the marketisation and privatisation of tertiary education since the late 1990s, the opportunities for academic higher education increased in socio-economically prosperous regions. Urban-dwellers only regard the academic track as the ‘normal’ educational path for youths. As the central government has set a target stipulating that vocational school students should account for half of the entire high school population, local governments and vocational schools have to implement ways of attracting students who have not previously had much access to post-compulsory education. In 2012, vocational high school enrolment in China reached 21.13 million, which accounted for 46 percent of total enrollment in high schools in general. In order to ensure a large and growing enrolment, local governments now allow more and more vocational schools to admit graduates of middle schools without requiring them to submit their school transcripts along with their application. With the hope of maintaining the supply of semi-skilled labourers for developments in the industrial and service sectors, an increasing number of migrant children who were originally excluded from the urban post-compulsory education system are recruited by vocational training schools in cities.

It is clear that under the discriminative examination system and an unequal structure of education opportunity, a large number of migrant children, including those with high academic performance, are systemically diverted away from a more valuable academic track in post-compulsory education, and then higher education. Given the limited opportunities for migrant children to enter colleges and universities, vocational training schools become the most feasible way for them to gain access to post-compulsory education. However, having only vocational degrees, they have high chances of ending up as industrial workers or low-end service workers in the urban labour market. The institutional barriers to higher education lead these migrant children to obtain a lower valued credential, limiting their opportunities for upward mobility, and retaining them as members of the lower class in the same cities as their parents.

Dr Anita Koo is an Associate Professor at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Image credit: CC by Brian Yap (葉)/Flickr.