View from the Media: College Entrance Exam Woes for Migrant Children

In this article Amanda Brown-Inz examines the issues around the children of migrant workers taking the college entrance exams.

In recent months, a considerable amount of media attention has focused on the plight of migrant workers’ children seeking to attend public high school and take the college entrance exam (gaokao) in a location outside of their legal residency, hukou1. This issue highlights the tensions arising from China’s rapid urbanization, and the stress that new geographic mobility places on the hukou system.

There are reportedly more than 400,000 migrant workers’ children living in Beijing alone, approximately 16 million throughout the country, and these communities have become increasingly vocal about their right to attend public high school and test for university in their place of residence. In urban metropoles such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, the issue has been particularly heated, as universities maintain higher placement quotas for these in-demand locations, and many claim that urban families hope to maintain a monopoly on their privilege by excluding the children of migrant workers from gaokao competition.

The first public debate on this issue centered around Zhan Haite, the 15-year-old daughter of a migrant businessman in Shanghai, whose plea for policy reform was featured in an op-ed in the state-owned newspaper China Daily. More recently, the debate in Beijing focused on a controversial plan issued in December of 2012 that would allow migrant workers’ children to attend vocational colleges in the capital beginning in 2013, and allow them to matriculate at universities after graduating from vocational colleges beginning in 2014.

The plan would allow policy makers to kill two birds with one stone, skirting the gaokao issue and acquiring pupils for the city’s unpopular (and reportedly subpar) vocational colleges. Following a public outcry, however, the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education announced on January 21 that it would reconsider this plan and develop a new action plan to allow migrant youths in Beijing to take the gaokao. This action plan will include creating a management regulation for migrant workers’ schools and a special fund to guarantee that migrant children receive compulsory education in Beijing.

In the meantime, the Beijing Bureau of Education has turned its attention to the unregistered schools which provide education to migrant children. While migrant children at the junior high school level and below are technically entitled to attend Beijing public schools, exorbitant entrance fees and weak educational backgrounds often prevent their enrollment. Thus, private schools for migrant children have sprung up in recent years, attempting to address the unique needs and situation of the children of migrant workers.

Despite the benefits of  (and obvious need for) these types of schools, Beijing education authorities have frequently been quite hostile to their operations. Migrant children’s schools face a constant battle against government closure efforts, and must often rely on their relationships or on appeals to the media to keep their doors open. Authorities argue, however, that many of these schools are not up to national standards, lacking professional teachers and proper curricula, and thus should not be allowed to operate. In January, Chaoyang authorities shut down 18 private schools.

More interesting initiatives related to the development and professionalization of migrant children’s schools have emerged from the private sector. Over the last couple of years, for instance, the Narada Foundation (南都基金会) has funded a New Citizens Program (新公民), which develops and professionalizes already extant migrant children’s schools. The Maple Women’s Psychological Counseling Center  has also recently announced the development of its Beijing Migrant Children’s Education Plan, which will unite a number of NGOs (including New Citizens) to form the Beijing Migrant Children’s Care Alliance, carrying out Training-of-Trainers and other programs.

The cause of gaokao qualification for the children of migrant workers is one in a growing chorus of critiques of the hukou registration system. The challenge for the government, which is reticent to dismantle the system, lies in testing how many exceptions and tweaks may be made to its infrastructure in response to social welfare concerns before it snaps. While the halting of the hukou system is far from certain, its navigation will hold a crucial place in the struggle for social welfare reform in upcoming years.


  1. Hukou is the Chinese term for the household registration system which determines every Chinese citizen’s legal residency. In this system every Chinese citizen registers in the city or town or township where their parents are registered. Benefits such as medical insurance and access to public schools are tied to one’s hukou and are not transferable. Thus, if someone moves to another city, such as Beijing, they generally do not receive those same benefits in their new place of residence, unless they are able to change their hukou. Getting your hukou transferred to a major city such as Beijing or Shanghai, however, is very difficult. As a result, the large majority of “migrants” in China’s major cities lack the same status as hukou holders in those cities.. 

CDB (English) Associate Director

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