ISSN 2330-717X

China: Migrant Laborers and Education Reforms Too Little Too Late


By Dr. B R Deepak

China’s Ministry of Education is contemplating to bring in education reform legislation in two of its major metropolitan cities, Beijing and Shanghai. If enacted the children of migrant families will no longer have to go back to their respective hometowns for taking the national exams (gaokao) upon completion of senior secondary school for entering a university. Beijing and Shanghai have the largest number of migrants where the spate of urbanization has thrown enormous opportunities. However, owing to the discriminatory nature of residency system (hukou zhidu), the wards of the migrants are denied basic social guarantees including health and education. Recently there have been an increasing number of complaints by the migrant families about the system, and have asked the authorities to initiate reforms in the ‘permanent residency permits.’ The authorities have understood that the situation is unfair, but hesitate to ring the bell that could have far reaching consequences on the socio-cultural and economic fabric of the mega cities across China.

According to the philanthropist Narada Foundation of China, Beijing has 300 schools for children of migrant workers. There are more than 8,000 teachers at the schools with a monthly salary of only 1,000 RMB, peanuts compared to the standards government or private schools in China. It is reported that China has 80 million children of migrant workers aged between 6 and 14, of which 20 millions have moved to the cities with their parents. At times the separate schools built for children of migrant children are even demolished as part of the expansionary urbanization policies. Yuan Guiren, the Education Minister of China admits that these demolitions occur throughout Beijing and make a mockery of the 9-year compulsory education law.

In response to the yawning rural-urban divide, the Chinese government came out with a new concept of building a “New Socialist Countryside” (shehuizhuyi xin nongcun) in early 2006. The concept suggests a shift in the development towards the countryside, and the government’s resolve to increase budgetary allocation to support infrastructure building, various social guarantees including education and health. The compulsory education law enacted in 1986 had many flaws; it stipulated that developing compulsory education is the responsibility of the county-level governments. Since local governments were financially weak, they forced the schools, particularly those in the impoverished rural regions, to either continue to collect the tuition fees or charge various “miscellaneous fees” from wards /parents in the name of “voluntary donations,” “fund-raising for school construction” or “after-school tutoring fees.”


The government outlay for education in 1992 was 72.8 billion RMB which gradually increased to 446.5 billion RMB in 2004. However, most of the funding came from various types of fund raising among the peasants. Such funds in 2004 accounted for 227.6 billion RMB. It is widely believed that before 2006, the share of the local governments in providing compulsory education reached 80 to 90%. The funding of the compulsory education in China so far came from the following three sources: one, outlays from township revenues; two, education surcharge (jiaoyu fujiafei) pooled from the peasants; and three, education pool fund (jiaoyu jizi) levied on peasants.

Surveys conducted by the sociologists in several rural areas in 2006 show that the Chinese farmers, whose annual per capita net income stood at a mere 3,200 RMB (in 2011 the income has reached 5919 RMB), have to pay about 800 RMB (100 dollars) a year for a child’s education in the elementary and secondary stage. Excessive charges by the schools have become a major reason behind the increasing rural dropouts in recent years. In order to do away with the anomalies, the Chinese government brought out a “Notification regarding deepening the reforms of rural compulsory education expenditure guarantee mechanism” on 24 December 2005 which pointed out that the responsibilities of every level need to be defined; that the central and local governments need to jointly bear the education expenditure and clearly define the shared ratio of expenditure. The document also pointed out that the rural compulsory education would gradually be brought into the ambit of public financial guarantee. The central government would outlay the compulsory education funds in accordance with the financial situation of regions. In the western and middle regions of China, the local governments would only bear 20% and 40% of the expenditure the rest would be borne by the central government.

Since 2006, China has exempted all tuitions and miscellaneous fees involved in compulsory education in the rural area of western China, and starting from February 28, 2007 China for the first time exempted rural children from paying tuition fees. It also earmarked an education fund of 10.6 billion RMB (US$1.36 billion) to cover the nine-year compulsory education fees and textbook expenditure for all rural school children. The Ministry of Finance further allocated 47 billion RMB (6.4 billion US dollars) to support rural education in the next three years until 2009. The total amount devoted to rural education has thus reached 265.2 billion RMB (35.9 billion US dollars) for the period between 2006 and 2010, up from 218.2 billion RMB. Furthermore, the students from low-income families in the central and western regions started receiving subsidies from late 2007. Primary students receive 2 RMB a day, and secondary students 3 RMB on the basis of 250 schooling days. The policy has been beneficial to some 11 million students from low-income families in the regions.

The anomalies in the compulsory education have been ironed out by the Chinese government to larger extent. However, the scenario at the intermediate and university level education in the rural areas is pathetic. At intermediate level the students need to shell out between two to four thousands RMB, while in the universities it could be anywhere between eight thousand and fourteen thousands. Given the per capita income of the peasants, it is almost impossible for them to think about sending their children to the universities if not intermediate level. The proposed education reforms in Beijing and Shanghai for the wards of migrant laborers though a welcome step but will do little to ameliorate the problem at national level. Furthermore, it would not be easy to carry out and adopt these reforms across China since the characteristics of migrant populations vary from region to region. Besides, it will also put enormous pressure on the limited educational infrastructure and resources of Beijing and Shanghai; finally it would be resisted by the holders of permanent residency permit, as the population pressures will impact on real estate prices, the traffic, healthcare, and the overall quality of life in these two mega cities.

(Dr. B R Deepak is professor of Chinese and the Dean of School of Languages, Doon University, Dehradun, he could be reached at [email protected])

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