Migrant parents expressed disappointment yesterday after three of the largest magnets of migrant labour - Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong - announced only a modest relaxation of residency restrictions for college entrance exams.
Officials in the three regions each submitted plans in advance of the State Council's year-end deadline for policies to overhaul the much criticised residency regime for the national entrance exams, or gaokao.
Regions have long restricted the exams largely to pupils who can prove residency under the restrictive hukou registration system - limiting options for prospective students and forcing thousands of migrants to choose between leaving their jobs and separating from their children.
The Beijing municipal government released a "transitional document" yesterday that allows migrant pupils to sit for gaokao in Beijing from 2014, provided their parents have contributed to the social security fund for six consecutive years. Even then, exam takers would have access only to tertiary vocational colleges.
Beijing authorities promised to draft a more detailed policy by the end of next year. Until then migrant pupils would be able to sit for the exams with a major caveat: they would have to take their scores back to their registered hometowns to be recruited.
A tearful Fan Yuqing, an office worker with a 14-year-old son who moved to Beijing from Henan seven years ago, said she felt insulted.
"The policy amounts to telling us we're second-class citizens no matter how long we've been living and working here," she said. "We must either take whatever the handouts are if we stay or we can simply leave."
Zhang Jiandang, the owner of a small business who came to Beijing from Anhui 18 years ago, said the policy made no progress in tackling the inequality migrants faced in gaining access to education. He said his 16-year-old son's performance was good enough to get him into the prestigious Tsinghua or Peking universities.
"I've no choice but to send him off to study overseas," he said. "But what about other parents who can't afford this?"
Guangdong similarly unveiled a policy stipulating that pupils from migrant families can sit for entrance exams starting in 2016, provided their parents have a provincial residency permit and contributed to social security there for at least three years.
Shanghai has tied its gaokao policy to its controversial residency permit regime. A scoring system would be used to evaluate if the children of migrant parents were eligible to take the gaokao.
Xiong Bingqi , deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, said discontent among parents was not surprising as the restrictive policies were the result of regional governments trying to balance various competing interests.
"It's the central government that is supposed to take the opportunity to overhaul the exam system nationally to address inequality because such policy has favoured major metropolises like Beijing too much in terms of allocation of university places," Xiong said. "The best way to address the inequality is to allow universities to recruit students purely on a merit basis."