GUANGZHOU - 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). 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) 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.