Access to education vital in China's dream of urbanisation

Winston Mok says the successful urbanisation of Chinese society will depend as much on improving access to education as on hukou reform

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 June, 2014, 3:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 June, 2014, 4:33pm

Like in some other East Asian countries, the college entrance exam in mainland China is a life-determining event. Unlike the others, however, the Chinese exams are administered differently across the country, even though they have to be taken on the same dates.

With rare exceptions, these exams have to be taken at one's place of household registration, or hukou. This means that migrant children, by and large, do not enjoy public primary and secondary education outside their places of hukou.

Hence, the children of many migrant workers are left at home. Without parental guidance, and in an educational environment far inferior to that of the major cities, many will grow up undereducated. China must brace itself for the social costs of millions of these underemployed and potentially delinquent youth.

Even those who follow their migrant parents have to return home for high school - to prepare themselves for the local higher examinations.

Many who bought an apartment in Tianjin to gain a hukou under a now discontinued scheme for those with money to invest, for example, did this so that their children would have a better chance of gaining entry to the nation's top universities. The quota system favours certain cities. For example, to be accepted into Tianjin's Nankai and Tianjin universities, or even Peking University, the odds favour residents of Tianjin over those living in, say, Shandong , where students have to compete for fewer places.

China must brace itself for the social costs of millions of these underemployed and potentially delinquent youth

China has announced a range of measures to make it easier for rural residents to settle in urban areas. College graduates, for example, have a better chance of becoming urban residents, except in the mega cities. Migrant workers with stable jobs can also settle in cities after a period of time. With the way paved, one would expect many long-term "temporary" workers to settle permanently in these coastal areas.

But that's not always the case. I talked to taxi drivers, mostly migrant workers, in Zhongshan , a medium-sized Pearl River Delta city that has been ranked as one of the most liveable on the mainland. I was surprised to learn that many plan to return home one day - even those who have lived there for a decade.

Such anecdotal observation bears out findings in a recent survey that only about 40 per cent of migrant workers in Zhongshan want to move their hukou to a city - any city. The high cost of living, including housing, is cited as the key impediment - even for this city where living and housing costs are only a fraction of Shenzhen's. For those whose intention is to settle permanently and move their hukou to a city, their children's education is the primary driver.

It is not difficult to understand why many migrant workers find it hard to settle permanently in cities. Among those surveyed, 22 per cent had only high school education, and a further 15 per cent received higher education. For the vast majority who have only middle school education or below, excepting the most capable and enterprising, they may find it tough going in cities as they get older. Other factors, such as cultural preferences, family ties and the security of farmland, also deter migrant workers from wanting to settle in the city. So, many migrant workers may move back to their home provinces, if not home towns, over time. The key is planning for the urbanisation of the next generation: how migrants' children can be properly integrated into urban society.

As borne out by international experience, such as in South Korea, education is a vital factor in urbanisation. It provides the skills to survive, and the cultivation to enjoy a city lifestyle. In China, it is what has enabled and drives people to become urban residents. The recently announced hukou reform is a giant step forward in facilitating urbanisation. But educational reform is just as important.

The economic success of China is built on its near universal primary education, which has provided skilled factory workers. Its next lap of development hinges on the success of its secondary, vocational and higher education. But the full potential for millions of future workers is severely compromised if there continues to be institutionalised separation of parents and children. Parents' choice about their hukou should not shape the destiny of their children although practically it will.

China must begin dismantling regional barriers in education alongside its hukou reform. Education, like other social benefits, can gradually be decoupled from hukou. There is no reason why the college entrance exam cannot become unified nationwide - and taken by anyone anywhere. Upon meeting certain requirements, migrant workers' children could be given access to the local education system regardless of their parents' hukou.

One key issue is funding the education for these out-of-towners. By making home ownership a key factor in access to education for non-locals, local governments assure themselves of a source of revenue; it will raise even more money when property taxes are introduced.

Even so, a central government subsidy will still be needed to realise this vision of "school without barriers". More than transport infrastructure, education is the most important investment the government can make in driving the urbanisation of people, and economic development, in China.

Winston Mok is a private investor, a former private equity investor and McKinsey consultant. An MIT alumnus, he studied under three Nobel laureates in economics