Three populous Chinese regions plan to relax restrictions on the children of workers from rural areas trying to enter university-track high schools, China National Radio reported on Sunday, in an apparent response to protests over discriminatory practices.
The planned changes come too late to help a teenager whose plight has become a cause celebre among activists pressing for reform of China's household registration, or hukou, regime.
Chinese high school students can only take university entrance exams where they are registered, a stipulation that effectively locks out the children of migrant workers in cities.
Hundreds of millions of Chinese have moved to cities from rural areas over the past three decades, but most migrants are still treated as second-class citizens without the same access to education, housing or health insurance as registered urban residents.
Reformists had seized on the case of Zhan Haite, 15, the daughter of migrants who had been raised in Shanghai but was ineligible to attend a university-track high school there. Her case triggered protests in Beijing and Shanghai this month, while her father was detained for several days for campaigning to secure education rights in Shanghai.
The rules as announced still do not treat the children of migrants as equals of city residents with legal registration.
"It's not ideal. They have just made the regulations more detailed, not changed the underlying situation," Zhan said from her home in Shanghai. The new criteria were so strict that she, and others like her, would still be ineligible, she said.
"I bet only 5 per cent of the kids would meet the new requirements."
Beijing and Shanghai as well as Guangdong Province, whose Pearl River Delta factories are a magnet for migrants, will phase in access to the higher-education exams for students living within their borders, China National Radio reported.
But in practice, academically gifted migrant children will still face discrimination.
From 2016, Guangdong will allow migrant children to sit the exams and apply to university on an equal footing with legal residents.
Beijing and Shanghai plan to relax admission rules for vocational-track schools and in some cases open the door to university education to students who have first graduated from a vocational school programme.
Migrant children may take the university exam in Beijing from 2013 and in Shanghai from 2014, but their university applications will still be processed in their legal hometown.
The children of migrants long resident in Beijing already have some rights to attend elementary school, but in practice they are often kept out by high fees, red tape and complicated admission procedures.