Will China’s cities really let migrant students sit the national college entrance examination?

The prize for Most Misleading Headline of the Week goes to the China Daily last Friday for its proclamation “Migrant children to sit gaokao in cities.”

If true, this would be the answer to millions of migrant workers’ prayers for their children who, despite being allowed to go to school in the city, have to return “home” to the countryside and study for the national college entrance exam (高考) there if they want to progress on to higher education.

This puts migrant students at a triple disadvantage: Firstly, the “home” exam might be based on a different syllabus to the one they had been studying in the city, secondly, they will be studying in an unfamiliar environment away from their parents, and finally, they will have to score higher marks on the test than their former classmates if they want to attend college in that city.

However, hope, and the China Daily story, quickly unravelled. In just the second paragraph in fact it transpired that the Minister of Education had merely “urged” local education authorities to come up with plans by the end of the year that might allow migrant children to take the exam in the city.

And further down, we discovered that there will be stiff qualifying criteria for students wanting to take the exam, including their parents having a stable job, accommodation in the city, detailed tax and insurance records etc. Moreover, the minister admitted, the local government will have the final say in exactly how the new policy is implemented.

In other words, city governments can be as inclusive or exclusive as they like. And, if past practice is anything to go by, city government officials are highly unlikely to open their doors and let migrant students share the same privileges their sons and daughters currently enjoy. The national college entrance exam is a highly competitive business and any advantage is jealously guarded.

Despite repeated urgings by the central government, city governments have only admitted migrants into the fold when it has been in their interests to do so. And there seems very little advantage for city governments open up the national college exam, especially in cities like Beijing and Shanghai whose students have an inside track into some of the country’s most prestigious universities.

The China Daily story illustrates once again just how dependent reform of China’s household registration (户口) system is on the will of individual cities rather than the central government. It is local governments who pay for local education and social services and so of course they get to decide who participates in those services.

There is, however, some cause for optimism now as more and more rural labourers start to find employment closer to home rather than travelling hundreds of kilometres to the coastal provinces of Guangdong and Zhejiang.

Not only will this lessen the disruption if children do have to go “home” to take the exam, it also increases the chances of city governments actually granting more rights to rural migrants. After all, intra-province hukou reform is a lot easier to manage and less politically sensitive than admitting rural migrants from outside the province.

And finally, growing criticism of the national college exam itself, along with calls for reform of the education system in general, means that for those currently in primary school the national college exam may no longer be the sole determinate of their higher education future. If this does happen, it will certainly help relieve some of the stress and intense competition currently associated with getting into college.

So while, the central government may never be able to solve the problem of migrant students and the national college exam, other forces at work may make the problem itself less of a problem.

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