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A Top Chinese University Reaches Out to Migrant Workers

By staff reporter LU RUCAI

ON March 6, 2009, the Common School of Peking University, one of China’s most prestigious institutes of higher education, commenced its fourth session. Over the course of six months 102 members of the university’s subsidiary staff, such as chefs and guards, will take classes covering everything from vocational training to social etiquette.

The school, running under the logo “promoting the notion of equality and fulfilling commoners’ dreams,” is intended to explore a new mode of education for migrant workers, whose numbers have reached hundreds of millions across the nation.

Providing General Education

Similar programs were taking place as early as 91 years ago at Peking University. In 1918 the then-university president Cai Yuanpei founded a night class for school laborers. It was followed by a school and a lecture group for subsidiary staff doing odd jobs, sponsored by university students, who were ardent about improving the learning and arousing the consciousness of the populace.

The PKU Common School has disparate purposes. It was in fact started as a research project on continuing education for migrant workers from rural areas by the university’s Graduate School of Education. “We found in our study that these people have a hard time fitting into urban culture and living. A key reason is a lack of schooling and training,” said Prof. Ding Xiaohao.

The university has a big community of approximately 3,000 migrant laborers. The trade union has been exploring ways to better serve them, so the project professors and union leaders soon sensed a chance for fruitful cooperation. In September 2006 the first session of the common school was inaugurated, with an enrollment of 53.

The initial curriculum included social interaction, psychological health, sharing and tolerance, as well as basic computer skills and English. In response to participants’ feedback, it later tilted more towards the first three areas. According to Prof. Ding, migrant workers from rural areas often adhere to rural conventions and habits after moving to the city, which often creates cultural clashes. Leaving behind family members and connections, these people are strangers to the cities they work in, and face a painful acclimatization to urban circumstances. Some guidance makes this process shorter and easier.

The school has now added another class: healthy sex. This is a bold move in a largely conservative society. Sun Li, deputy principal of the school and vice chairwoman of the university’s trade union, is aware of the needs of her students. “Most of the migrant workers in the university are single in their twenties. Better knowledge of sex is important to them.”

Higher Learning Resources Plus Volunteers

Prof. Ding Xiaohao and other members of her research project conducted a survey among the migrant workers at Peking University before launching the Common School. The results showed that the 3,000 or so laborers have an average age of 26.8 years, and 76 percent have six years or less schooling. The majority are aware of the gap between their professional skills and market demands, but balk at further education or training because of limited time (68.5 percent) and the exorbitant costs involved (46.5 percent).

Prof. Ding believes that universities, with a large pool of qualified volunteers among staff members and students, and rich resources in terms of classrooms and teaching facilities, can play a constructive role in the further education of migrant workers.

Some 30 teachers from the Graduate School of Education teach in the Common School, assisted by 40 to 50 students in each session. Xu Chunbin, a Law School junior, has volunteered in the Common School since its opening in 2006. “Students are passionate about being volunteers. For the fourth session we received more than 100 applications for 40 posts.”

For the first three sessions Xu assisted with English teaching and after-school activities. Now he is in charge of volunteer management. “The experience has helped me understand the meaning of Confucius’ saying ‘teaching without distinction’,” Xu said. “Education is the right of all. What we are doing in the Common School is imparting this idea to more migrant workers.”

Prof. Ding stresses that the faculty should show due respect for a group with an average age of 26 but at least five years work experience each. “Through our classes and through contact with teachers and volunteers, our students are expected to expand their social circles, to activate the positive side of their mind, and eventually achieve self improvement.”

Prof. Ding believes the Common School will bring changes not only to its students, but also people around them. “It has a ripple effect. Our students will pass knowledge to their acquaintances, and ignite the desire to study in others.”

The curriculum of the PKU Common School has been made into a video by China Education Television (CETV), and is available online free of charge.

A Long Way to Go

“At the beginning of the Common School many employers had no idea of the effects on migrant workers, and some worried about rises in labor disputes once migrant workers became better aware of their rights,” recalled Sun Li, the school’s deputy principal. “After two sessions our trainees reported better performance at their jobs, and many were elected model workers.”

Cao Zhigang, a hired hand at the university’s dining center, acknowledged that some employers think ignorant workers are more docile. “In fact it is in both parties’ interests that both sides know their rights and obligations, and can resort to negotiations in case of disputes.” The 39-year-old attended the first session of the Common School, and has since attended classes regularly. “The biggest change has been inside. It changes the way you view the world and get along with other people.” For instance, after a class on environmental protection, he began to notice some things around him that he previously ignored, and has since participated in the annual volunteer clean up campaign on campus.

According to a survey among the Common School trainees, the most loved classes are on social intercourse skills (81 percent), career planning (79 percent) and remaining upbeat (71 percent). English and computer training are rated lower.

Prof. Ding, who participated in the design of curriculums, explained that the lessons are not meant to impart profound learning, but instead instill the fundamental values and concepts required by every citizen. “Each element, whether it’s a lecture, discussion or group activity, is devised to foster self-confidence and a sense of belonging among our students.”

Deputy Principal Sun Li was impressed with the eagerness of migrant workers to cooperate. “We provide training to college students of various grades, but no classes are so fervently received as those for migrant workers. They show a strong desire to be admitted to city life, and to be accepted and cared about.”

Despite the popularity of the Common School, the program has yet to catch on at other universities in the way the organizers had originally anticipated. “It requires a huge input of time, energy and money,” Sun Li concedes. “It is good to admit more people. But our current capacity can barely meet the needs of migrant workers at Peking University. The total enrollment space for the four sessions of the school is only 300 or so.” Due to pressure on available spaces, for the moment the school has no plans to open to migrant workers outside the university. Despite its limited ambit, the school is one of the many encouraging signs of growing concern about a huge community playing a crucial role in China’s development.
VOL.59 NO.12 December 2010 Advertise on Site Contact Us