How to Educate a Workforce on the Move | Teachers College Columbia University

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How to Educate a Workforce on the Move

For China's massive migrant worker population, community colleges may be the best hope for obtaining an education.
In the past 25 years, China has undergone perhaps the most massive internal migration in history. From 30 million in 1982, the country’s population of migrant workers has mushroomed to 120 million, with no slackening in sight. Spurred by the promise of a better life and, during the past 10 years, by the relaxation of laws that used to require a “residency permit,” the vast majority have moved east from China’s western and central provinces to its booming coastal areas: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, Fujian, Tianjing, Jiangshu and Zhejiang.
These workers are very young (nearly half are under the age of 25) and very poor (on average they still earn half of what China’s non-migrant staff and workers make), and they work brutally long hours.
Still, they have their hopes. In fact, according to a survey conducted by Minghua Li of East China Normal University’s School of Public Administration and reported in an article with Henry Levin of Teachers College, more than 70 percent of those at the study’s education experiment sites say they want higher education of some sort—“serious programs that combine some vocational or technical training with a degree.” The article appears in the volume Community College Models: Globalization and Higher Education Reform, edited by Rosalind Latiner Raby and Edward J. Valeau, which was published in March by Springer.
Certainly other segments of China’s working poor have realized that dream. The nation’s three-year vocational colleges, as well as its famous radio and TV universities, have helped millions move up the socioeconomic ladder. But the migrant workers face longer odds. Currently some 40 million of them live in the “industrial parks” that have been created around factories on the outskirts of cities. The workers spend nearly all their waking hours on the job, typically live in groups of six or seven in cramped dorms without computers, and are miles away from schools. And because the parks are categorized as special economic zones that are exempted from providing the public services extended to most Chinese, Li and Levin write in a recent paper, “migrant workers are by and large effectively blocked from access to continuing education resources” and are likely to remain so “without appropriate social intervention.”
What would such an intervention look like? Li and Levin believe it should be based on the American concept of community college, but with some very pronounced adaptation to China.
A community college, as Li and Levin define it, is any institution that provides affordable higher education and other schooling and training for all who seek it, with no academic entrance barriers; that is set up to meet the needs of a local community; and that is run with that community’s participation, including that of local academics, employers and students. So far, so good. But unlike in the United States, where community colleges typically serve students within a 20-mile radius, Li and Levin “propose to deliver teaching to the doors of the migrant workers” in China’s factory parks. Their model would begin with the creation of small learning centers, clustered nearby one another in areas where there are many industrial parks in close proximity. Ultimately, according to their vision, the centers would grow to achieve formal community college status.
Each center would be within walking or biking distance for 10,000 to 15,000 students and would be connected by a network of small shuttle buses. Each would have teaching facilities, such as classrooms, and team learning areas and computer rooms, as well as a small library and a multimedia learning theater. And building on the migrant workers’ Well-documented frequenting of the many Internet cafes that have sprung up in the factory parks, the courses would be offered through a mix of traditional classrooms and online media such as Windows, Office, New Concept English, New English 900 and computer aided design tools such as Photoshop.
Li’s team has experimented with three pilot centers along these lines in two factory parks in the suburbs of Shanghai, and the results have been promising. For example, workers without much previous education benefited markedly from participating in a “social learning incubator”—an organized learning environment in which they themselves formed a “learning team” with a set of common goals. The team assumed leadership of the learning process, implementing learning plans, providing one another with emotional support, and helping each other with time management. Li found that while the existence of a physical learning center does not, in itself, create learning, employing the social learning incubator does.
“In just one month it reached its full capacity for teaching use of available information communication technology,” he and Levin report. “In this area, if we set up a whole network of centers it would serve 109,000 people today and about 200,000 people in about three years.” If just 20 percent participated, “this community college could serve the educational needs of about 40,000 people regularly.”
There’s just one issue with all of this: Who will create and run such centers? Private education companies are unlikely candidates, because there are no ready-made teaching facilities. China’s central and local governments have been spending some money on education, but in amounts far from sufficient to help the migrant workers. And while the survey by Li and Levin finds that the migrant workers themselves would be willing to pay a substantial share of the cost, partners with deeper pockets obviously would be needed.
In the final part of their analysis, Li and Levin propose a blend of two possible cost-sharing models for bringing community college to China’s migrant workers. Under one model, China’s township schools would extend their reach to factory parks, with employers, local government and the migrant workers themselves splitting the cost. Under the other, the learning center networks would be run by a not-for-profit holding company that nevertheless is set up like a business. Under this “social investment” model, the different stakeholders in the organization— companies, governments, foundations, individuals—would maintain their rights and decision-making power over management of the holding company. The company might privatize should the learning centers become profitable.
Enacting either model is a formidable challenge. But to TC’s Levin, who in the 1970s and ’80s launched a network of thousands of accelerated schools in the United States, it’s a goal that not only can but must be attained.
“There are huge inequities in China, especially between the rural areas, where some people are living just a step beyond starvation, and the cities,” he says. “You have a huge number of people who want that better life. And as every society eventually learns, they are the future of their country. The unique community college that we have suggested for China can be an important institution for ensuring that future for the migrants.”

Published Tuesday, Apr. 28, 2009