Higher education is regarded as the most realistic way for rural Chinese to change their fates. For Shao Hongmei, this passport to a better life arrived last year, when he was one of the first people admitted to an innovative new "distance learning" scheme that, crucially, is provided at little or no cost to students.
Like many members of poor rural families, whose livelihoods are generally based around low-pay migrant work, poverty had limited the 29-year-old's higher education prospects to the stuff of dreams.
The man from central China's Hunan province says he had to sign IOUs for tuition fees when at a vocational school at the age of 15 and at that point realized how financially tough it would be to get to college.
His chance came in May 2011 when Guangdong province launched a pilot program to provide migrant workers with free online learning provided by Beijing's prestigious Peking University. Shao was one of 100 migrant workers admitted to the program, and in February will start his third semester of studying online for a bachelor's degree by viewing lectures, accessing reading material and having contact with lecturers.
Alongside him in China's fledgling digital education universe will be thousands of new students about to start studying for the first time after the pilot program, named Guangdong New Generation Leading Migrant Workers Cultivation and Development Plan, was expanded late last year.
"I had quite a few opportunities to receive higher education, but had to give up only because of poverty," says Shao, who fits his studies around working in Dongguan city of southern Guangdong province for a company producing medical devices.
He felt distressed in the days when he was restricted to doing odd jobs while trying in vain to fund his education. "I spent all my money on books after I got my wage for the first month, but without a diploma I couldn't find regular and better jobs," Shao explains.
He attempted to apply for open university programs, but they were too expensive, costing as much as 10,000 yuan (1,585 U.S. dollars). Under the program, Peking University exempted his tuition fee and provided a laptop and Internet access for free, however.
Shao now looks forward to a more promising career and more stable life after graduation, he says.
When the distance learning program was expanded in October 2011, more than 30,000 migrant workers applied for courses provided by 17 first-tier universities across the country, including Peking University and Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.
Some 10,000 people under 35 years of age were admitted. They only have to pay 1,000 yuan (158.4 U.S. dollars) to study two or three years for courses such as financial management, human resource management, computer science and technology.
They will receive a junior college or bachelor's degree after finishing required courses and passing final exams.
Those who were not admitted to the universities can visit the program's official website and access online courses for free. The website offers 275 courses in 10 categories, including economics, philosophy, management, law and medicine, and there are plans to provide more in the near future.
Many migrant worker students benefitting from the same Peking University distance learning courses as Shao consider this a life-changing opportunity. It offers the professional training necessary for them to secure a promising job and protect their own interests.
Liu Jie feels she has stepped into a new stage of life and is confident she will land a better job after graduation.
"I almost cried when I received the admission notice," says Liu, who longed for a more rewarding job during seven years of monotonous work demonstrating how to operate entertainment machines in an amusement park.
Having only high school education, her career choice was basically limited to waitress, cleaner or sales girl.
Ma kui, a technician at a company in Dongguan city, says online law courses will help him build a more promising career path.
"I learned a lot by listening to lectures, which is way better than working out a way on my own," says Ma, who tried in vain to teach himself law and humanities in the past.
FOR LABOR COMPETENCE
The program was initiated by Guangdong province's Education Department and Communist Youth League Committee amid national efforts to improve migrant workers' living conditions, and their access to medical care and education.
The scheme also aims to provide a pool of well-educated and skilled young migrant workers to accelerate transforming the province's industry.
Guangdong is one of China's most economically dynamic regions and one of the world's key manufacturing bases. About 20 million migrant workers earn a living there.
"One more year of education will result in a 17 percent increase in the productivity of this young generation of migrant workers. Guangdong depends on those well-equipped workers to realize industry upgrading," says Zhu Mingguo, deputy-secretary of the Guangdong provincial committee of the Communist Party of China.
Experts say the program also helps stabilize a society in which migrant workers have become a major contributor of economic growth.
Social conflicts may become sharper if young migrant workers, who typically prefer city life, are not provided with enough opportunities to pursue further studies and better career development, says Wan Xiangdong, professor of social science at Sun-Yat Sen University.
Some 80 percent of China's migrant workers are young people born in the 1980s or 1990s, according to Lu Xin, vice minister of education. Providing continuing education for those potential professional talents is key to the country's economic transformation and industrial restructuring, she says.
She has announced that the ministry of education plans to further improve the distance learning program and carry it out to other regions.
Some say foreign-owned enterprises, generally based along the country's east coastline, will also benefit from the program. These companies need skilled technicians in order to compete or enter emerging industries such as developing new energy and materials.
The program trains such technical talents for them, says Xiao Yaofei, professor at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies.
However, some fear the degree will not be recognized in a country where only regular university diplomas are admired while open university degrees are looked down upon.
"Most companies do not know this program is an authorized way to acquire a degree because it is new," worries Han Weiran, who will study accounting at Hunan Normal University online.