From Where I Sit - In the city, but not part of it

January 31, 2013

In December, 15-year-old Zhan Haite became a focus of national attention in China.

The girl, who said that her idols are Aung San Suu Kyi (the Burmese pro- democracy leader) and Martin Luther King, protested with her father in People’s Square in downtown Shanghai after being denied the opportunity to take the national college entrance exam in the city. The placards in their hands conveyed the message: “Equal rights, Equal opportunities and Equal rules! Anti-discrimination!”

Zhan migrated to Shanghai with her father in 2002 from her home town Jiujiang in Jiangxi province. In the city, her father started a business and she completed her primary and junior education. But because her registered residence is still at Jiujiang, Zhan was not allowed to take Shanghai’s entrance exams for secondary school or the national college entrance exam three years later. Although it was suggested that she could return to Jiujiang to attend secondary school and to sit Jiangxi’s college entrance exam, Zhan decided to drop out.

The case has triggered widespread debate over China’s national college entrance examination system. The rules deny millions of students who migrate to cities the chance to take the exam if they lack permanent residence registration. This can affect those whose parents are migrant labourers, white-collar employees, businessmen or even academics returning from overseas.

It is widely believed that the problem lies not only in an anachronistic household registration system, but also in the extreme imbalance of educational resources between provincial areas and megacities. Most first- class institutions such as Peking University, Tsinghua University and Fudan University are located in megacities, and their quotas for enrolling local students are much higher than those of universities in less populous areas.

According to Xu Youyu, a former professor in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in 2004 Peking University enrolled 380 freshmen from Beijing, but only 72 from Henan province and 32 from Guizhou province. And Zhang Qianfan, a professor in Peking University’s law school, has published research showing that based on 2011 data, Beijing students are 41 times more likely to enter Peking University than their peers from Anhui province.

It seems that Zhan and her father are not alone. In Beijing, anxious parents facing the same problem established the United Citizens’ Action for Education Equality project in 2010. The project has a website and a microblog, and thousands of parents have campaigned on the streets while their representatives have lobbied officials. Scholars such as Professor Zhang and members of the National People’s Congress have joined efforts to propose changes to the State Council, the Ministry of Education and education authorities in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

In response, education authorities in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, the megacities with the biggest migrant populations and the best education resources, finally published their roadmaps for reform in late December. But the plans have been widely criticised for setting high entry barriers for migrant students. Shanghai says that parents who have come to the city as “talents with expertise” and have a home there as well as a steady job may get a residence registration that allows their children to take Shanghai’s college entrance exam in 2014. Guangzhou will open its entrance exam to qualified migrant students in 2016. But Beijing’s plan didn’t have even a timetable for opening its exams to migrant students. According to Professor Zhang, if the plans had been marked like an exam: “Guangzhou passed; Shanghai failed; and Beijing just turned in a blank exam paper.”

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