It’s annual gaokao season. That’s the time of the year when China turns strangely quiet. Commercial and military flights are rerouted to limit overhead noise; roads to exam venues are blocked off by the police, and even horn honking is prohibited so that students can take the gaokao without distraction.
More than 9.1 million students sat their gaokao (college entrance exam) last Thursday, competing for just 6.9 million places at universities.
But for millions of China’s migrant students, taking the exam is also a major hassle. That’s because of the hukou, the country’s system of household registration (for more on this topic see WiC88), which requires migrants to take their exams in their hometown. Exam papers are uniform within provinces but not nationwide, and universities allocate different quotas for admission between different provinces, which puts migrant students at a disadvantage. Shanghai’s main universities, for instance, run quotas that make it easier for locals to attend.
But migrant students may be about to get a boost. Fujian province recently released new rules saying that, from 2014, students can sit the gaokao in the province even if they aren’t registered locally (i.e. hold a local hukou). The proviso is that they must have completed three years of high school in Fujian but the province looks likely to be the first to allow students from elsewhere to sit the gaokao.
“The policy helps maintain social justice, improve education standards and attract more outside workers,” Fujian education official Liu Jianjin told media.
What else is behind the move? Possibly that Fujian is facing a shrinking talent pool.
In Fujian, the number of students taking the gaokao has been declining every year since 2009, says the Economic Observer. This year saw a sharp drop of about 10,000 students and educational institutions are complaining about having problems recruiting enough students.
So by allowing out-of-state students to take their exams in Fujian, the province is clearly hoping to gain a competitive edge in attracting future migrant workers – moreover, of the educated variety, too.
Indeed, while the province’s decision was generally welcomed, others agree that this was a move borne of self-interest rather than a sense of social justice. Workers are getting harder to recruit for coastal areas like Fujian. Partly that’s because more factories have moved inland, and salaries for skilled workers in the central and western regions are now at less of a discount to those on the coast. Higher living expenses in coastal cities also make less well-paid jobs closer to home more attractive.
Fujian wants to lure more students with the right skills. “From an economic development point of view, Fujian requires a lot of technical workers to remain competitive,” says Liu Huixiong from the Fujian Provincial Education Examination Authority. “Already, a lot of university graduates stay in Fujian to work even without a hukou and some even start a family. And many of them take up senior positions in local enterprises. So it is important to lure these workers’ children.”
Still, some locals query the value of extending the same benefits to migrant students. Why? Because educating them is expensive. There is also a concern that attracting a flood of outsiders could take places away from local applicants.
The province, which has been subsidising migrant student education at local schools since 2008, has seen the subsidy grow from just Rmb40 million in 2008 to Rmb260 million last year. That surge may explain why – despite years of debate – China as a whole has done little to reform the hukou system. It’ll be costly.
Nevertheless, the education ministry has promised to come up with a new policy by the end of the year. It remains to be seen whether migrant magnets like Beijing and Shanghai – home to most of China’s top universities – will follow in Fujian’s pioneering footsteps.
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