At a 24-hour coffee shop in Beijing’s Haidian district, private tutor Ming Tian was explaining a math question to students. A few blocks away in a 20-story building housing scores of after-school tutoring facilities, classrooms and offices were empty.
Huang Zhengxin, the father of a daughter in middle school and a son in elementary school, was anxiously looking for alternative summer tutoring channels for his children. Meanwhile, Sun Ke, a veteran employee of an online education company, had just lost his job.
So it goes as China’s sweeping overhaul of the giant tutoring industry creates millions of personal dramas across the country. Instructors are being thrown out of work in droves and Chinese parents now face new worries about securing their children’s futures. The upheaval grew out of a government clampdown unveiled in July that bans all tutoring related to the core school syllabus during vacations and weekends for students in elementary and middle school, while barring private tutoring companies from going public or raising foreign capital.
When the State Council, China’s cabinet, issued the new rules last month, the tutoring industry was just like “a file on a computer desktop; selected and deleted,” said Wang Lin, teaching head of a large online education company.
More than $100 billion was wiped off the market value of three U.S.-traded Chinese education giants — TAL Education, New Oriental Education & Technology, and Gaotu Techedu — compared with the stocks’ highs earlier this year.
A week after the new rules were released, Zhangmen Education laid off more than 1,000 employees and terminated the leases on two of its office buildings. Zhangmen had just floated shares in New York in June. TikTok owner ByteDance is laying off thousands of employees working on preschool education and ed-tech products, people close to the company told Caixin.
Comply to survive
After the initial shock — shutting down classes, laying off employees and closing offices — education companies now face a common question: What do they do next to survive?
The answers will vary from company to company, but as they pick up the pieces, China’s tutoring enterprises are finding a range of opportunities.
After investors’ initial panic, the regulatory crackdown will bring transformation opportunities for the industry in the long term, said Ge Wenwei, partner of Duojing Capital, an education industry-focused research and investment company.
There is plenty of room in the sector for new products, said Wang Jinjing, a managing partner in charge of education and training at Oliver Wyman. With society rapidly developing, the requirements to enter the workforce of the future may differ greatly from today, while schools are often slow in updating their programs, she said.
“What capabilities will our next generation need to compete on the global stage 20 years from now?” Wang asked. “Parents will really love to pay for high-quality education products designed for the future … growth potential is very good.”
In addition, local education commissions need new communications technology to advance development. Compared with individual schools, education commissions usually have larger purchase orders and deeper pockets, Wang said.
The new rules require all private companies that teach compulsory school subjects to become nonprofits. Beijing plans to require companies to complete the transition to nonprofit status by the end of this year, Caixin learned from staff at the Beijing Municipal Education Commission. Some municipal education authorities in Shaanxi Province ordered companies to complete the change by October.
The Beijing education authority suggested a change in focus to sectors that are not affected by the new regulations, including high school tutoring, vocational education, all-around education and hybrid business models, Caixin learned.
A hybrid business model under the new policy would mean providing tutoring in school subjects from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. on school days while offering other subjects on weekends and holidays, such as sports, music and arts. This model could help companies maximize student retention and reduce the risk of massive refunds. Businesses would have to spin off their school-subject tutoring operations and become nonprofit organizations, while activities focusing on teaching nonschool subjects could continue as assets of the companies as long as they are managed separately in accordance with the laws.
Under the latest interpretation by the Ministry of Education, school-subject tutoring refers to all off-campus classes on ethics, Chinese, history, geography, math, foreign languages, physics, chemistry and biology.
For publicly traded companies, adopting a hybrid business model could win them more time to expand into non-school-subject training and retain their status as listed companies, but it is inevitable that they will shrink. For major tutoring companies such as New Oriental, TAL and Gaotu, the school-subject tutoring business can account for 50% to 80% of total revenue.
Some U.S.-traded Chinese education companies are prepared for delisting and privatization. OneSmart International Education reported on Aug. 4 that it received a letter from the New York Stock Exchange saying it is below compliance criteria, as its stock price was less than $1 over 30 consecutive days. The company has six months to boost its share price to avoid delisting. More than a dozen U.S.-listed Chinese education stocks are trading close to $1.
Among major players, only Gaotu has made clear plans to switch to vocational education. The company is shutting 10 of 13 offline tutoring centers across the country and idling more than 10,000 people, about a third of its staff. New Oriental, Tal, Tencent-backed homework tutoring app Yuanfudao and Alibaba-backed Baidu edtech spinoff Zuoyebang have signaled business expansions or launched new products but have yet to make major shifts.
“Nobody has a clear mind how to transform,” an executive at an online education enterprise said. “We are trying all-around education, after-school care, collaboration with public schools and vocational education, but their sizes are all far from becoming the core business.”
Without tutoring in compulsory school subjects, scheduled classes across the tutoring industry will decline 61%, according to a report by China International Capital. Revenues of New Oriental will drop 43% and of TAL, 67%, the report estimated.
Tutoring companies can still offer classes during school days, but all classes have to end by 9 p.m. “If students finish their homework at 8:30 p.m., it doesn’t leave much time to take after-school classes,” said an executive at a regional after-school training company. “We used to schedule eight classes on weekends, now on weekdays we can schedule only five.” He estimated the company’s revenue would fall by 60%.
For online education companies, the major compliance change will be switching from live online classes to recorded courses. Zuoyebang and TAL started to take preemptive steps in June to switch to recorded courses. But the Beijing education commission warned companies that in the future recorded courses could be defined as educational publications, subject to licensing requirements.
Industry giants with large physical campus assets, such as TAL and New Oriental, are also exploring the after-school care business. The Ministry of Education encouraged public primary and middle schools in urban areas to provide two-hour after-school programs in line with parents’ working hours as well as summer programs. Such programs, run by schoolteachers, should help students with homework and conduct activities such as reading, sports and interest groups, but they cannot teach school syllabus content.
Parents have complained that programs run by schools cannot meet their educational needs. A primary schooler’s parent said no one in his child’s class has enrolled in the school’s summer program. “Kids have nothing to do there,” the parent said. “They can’t learn anything.”
The head of a public school in Beijing told Caixin that the school programs charge only a minimal fee and provide just basic care. “Kids are summoned to classrooms to sit for a whole day,” he said. “Kids are not happy. Teachers are not happy. And parents are not satisfied either.”
While the policy change upends the industry, it also presents new opportunities. The crackdown on after-school tutoring aims to bring the focus of education back to school campuses. Some companies are turning their focus to providing complementary services to schools. The government has also given a green light for public schools to purchase after-class services from third parties using government subsidies.
Beijing Lanxum Technology, which focuses on Chinese language teaching, recently said it is expanding services into drama and arts appreciation classes provided as part of on-campus after-class programs.
Shenzhen Dianmao Technology has been providing coding courses, teaching materials and teacher training for schools since 2019. The company works with more than 21,000 schools in China. But compared with its core consumer-facing business, the profit margin on school services is thin. Dianmao said it uses school entry as a way to popularize coding education and nurture the market rather than as a focus on profitability.
Li Tianchi, founder and CEO of Dianmao, said he expects more competitors will enter the school service market under the new policy. Dianmao aims to increase the share of school services in its total revenue, but this will require an accurate understanding of schools’ needs and the policy environment, Li said.
Another service that schools need is help building information-based platforms. For example, Singapore’s Temasek-backed Yiqizuoye since 2011 has been providing free services to public primary and middle schools, including a platform to help teachers prepare courses, assign homework and review students. As the service is free, the company’s revenue relies on its K-12 online tutoring courses.
At the request of the interviewees, the names of parents, teachers, employees and schoolmasters are all aliases.
Read also the original story.
Caixinglobal.com is the English-language online news portal of Chinese financial and business news media group Caixin. Nikkei recently agreed with the company to exchange articles in English.
The sky was still pitch-black when Anna Whitehead rose from bed to begin teaching for the day. It’s a routine she has grown accustomed to over the past two years—waking up around 4:40 a.m. and logging on, bleary-eyed, to teach English to a cadre of children in China.
Except this time, on Aug. 5, the routine was interrupted.
Whitehead, who on top of being an online English-language tutor works full-time as a high school teacher in a traditional classroom in Alabama, had received a frantic text from the mother of one of her Chinese students overnight. GoGoKid, the online tutoring platform that Whitehead contracts with to supplement her family’s income and help make ends meet, was shutting down immediately.
She checked her email, hoping the mother had misunderstood, and found a message from the company confirming its demise. “Dear teachers,” the email began. “This letter is to inform you that as of Aug 5th 2021, GOGOKID will suspend the curriculum offered to all Chinese students. This decision is in light of the recent educational policy revisions in China. All classes starting on Aug 5th will be cancelled from the system.”
The language—“suspend the curriculum”—was a bit vague, but the message was crystal clear: It was over.
Whitehead, who’d had 25-minute classes lined up back-to-back throughout the morning, watched in horror as each one disappeared from her schedule.
“It was the worst possible outcome,” she said in an interview the day after the email came through. “I could’ve at least given them an awesome lesson and told them goodbye. It just felt like the rug was yanked out from under us.”
For many of the thousands of Americans who tutor through GoGoKid, the news was shocking but not entirely surprising. They were bracing for some degree of changes, following China’s recent crackdown on tutoring. But even if the company was forced to shutter, few tutors expected it to happen this soon—or this abruptly.
“We had heard, about a month ago, that there were some sweeping regulations coming to China, so I had an idea something would change,” said Sharisse Quinones Robinson, an online English-language tutor for GoGoKid who lives in DeLand, Fla. “But I didn’t know it would be this severe, and I didn’t know we’d get zero notice.”
GoGoKid, an education product under Beijing-based company ByteDance (which also owns TikTok), collapsed overnight. Other companies in the space are slowly crumbling. Days before the GoGoKid email went out, rival service Magic Ears told teachers that it, too, would wind down its services over the next six to 12 months. Competitors such as QKids, Landi English and others have followed suit, saying that they would allow teachers to tutor until Chinese families’ pre-paid class packages run out. And recently, tutoring behemoth VIPKid sent out a notice to its foreign teachers saying that while it planned to continue to operate as a tutoring company in other countries, its business in China had only “several months” left.
Boom — and Bust
Quinones Robinson wasn’t wrong about a major shakeup to China’s online tutoring market. But she, like many others, underestimated its extent. In late July, the country rolled out new regulations that severely limit for-profit tutoring services and bar foreign investment in private education companies. It comes after years of enormous growth for China’s tutoring sector, including the emergence and expansion of a number of platforms that connect young children in China with native English speakers overseas for live, one-on-one language lessons.
By 2019, VIPKid, a major player in the online English-tutoring market, claimed to contract with nearly 100,000 American and Canadian tutors who served a combined 600,000 children in China. (VIPKid declined to share current numbers.) Qkids, meanwhile, claims on its website that it connects “over 1 million international young learners” with educators. The exact reach of these companies—this industry—is not clear, but their collective footprint is massive, global and estimated to be worth billions of dollars.
The arrangement worked well for both parties. Some Americans had finagled it into a full-time job, but more often, the platforms drew teachers who didn’t make enough money in the classroom alone to cover the bills. Many viewed tutoring as a flexible, fortuitous “side hustle,” a work-from-home slice of the gig economy. In China, wealthy and middle-class parents saw private English tutoring—especially led by native English speakers—as a way to get ahead, a canny edge on other students against whom their own children would some day have to compete.
While Chinese families have been forking over the equivalent of tens of thousands of U.S. dollars to support their children’s private educations after regular school hours—often at night, before bedtime—American tutors have been raking in up to $22 an hour by waking at the crack of dawn to squeeze in a few lessons before their own families wake up and the typical workday begins.
The official reason for the crackdown is that the financial pressure on Chinese families and academic pressure on Chinese children has become untenable. The high-stakes culture around education in China—and the subsequent costs associated with it—has become so fraught that many parents say they can’t justify having another child, which the Chinese government now encourages. It would simply break them financially. Recognizing this strain—and the declining birth rate it has perhaps led to—the Chinese government decided to act.
One unofficial reason for the new regulations, however, could be that companies like GoGoKid and VIPKid have provided Americans with unfettered access to young, impressionable Chinese children. As tensions between the United States and China escalate, many observers speculate that the Chinese government wanted to curtail Western influence on its youngest minds.
Americans who tutor for VIPKid and GoGoKid believe it’s a combination of those reasons. They have certainly seen first-hand the high expectations set for children in China.
“I have one student who said, on a Saturday, ‘I have 13 hours worth of class today,’” Whitehead recalled. “I said, ‘Wow,’ and she said, ‘Oh, it’s not so bad. I have a friend who has 17 hours.’”
Quinones Robinson used to teach a 5-year-old whose lesson began at 8:30 p.m. local time, and she said it was difficult to watch.
“He was exhausted. He was falling asleep,” Quinones Robinson said. “These kids are worked so hard. … Part of me thinks this will be good for them.”
Joe Madrid, an American tutor for GoGoKid who now lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, said he’s taught kids who describe staying up doing their homework till midnight or 1 a.m. and going to training centers on weekends. The pressure and the burden on families are real, he said. But he thinks the new regulations have more insidious motivations as well.
“Do you really want a country that’s your adversary teaching your children?” Madrid asked, incredulous. “We have contact with these kids every day. … It seems like a strange thing to me.”
A One-Two Punch
Whitehead, the tutor based in Houston County, Alabama, has been a classroom teacher in the U.S. for eight years. Her husband is also a teacher. Their combined income from working in brick-and-mortar schools was not enough to cover basic needs. “Out of desperation,” Whitehead signed up to be an online English-language tutor a couple of years ago. It would end up being one of the most meaningful decisions and experiences of her life, she said.
Her monthly take-home pay from her full-time teaching position is about $2,500 to $2,800. She was bringing in another $1,500 to $1,800 a month by teaching 20-25 hours a week on GoGoKid and said that money is “absolutely essential” to her family’s livelihood.
“There are a lot of teachers who do this to make their ‘mad money,’ if you will,” Whitehead explained. “I do it for Christmas gifts, for paying credit card bills, for paying normal bills. It doesn’t just pad my income. It helps me stand up straight with my income.”
The timing stings. Whitehead and her husband recently bought a new house. “There has been debt incurred because of that, so it’s a tremendous financial blow,” she said.
For Quinones Robinson, online tutoring allowed her to leave an office job that she’d begun to resent and spend more time at home with her children. In 2018, when she got started with VIPKid and GoGoKid, she was a single mom who taught a few sessions in the mornings before work. In no time, though, she was making as much money tutoring as she was from her office salary and decided to hand in her resignation. For three years now, she said, she has been working 25 hours a week from home, in her pajamas, instead of 40 hours a week in business attire at an office: “It’s been awesome.”
Quinones Robinson was making $2,400 to $2,600 a month before GoGoKid’s “Dear teachers” email came through earlier this month and turned her world upside down. She and her husband also bought a new home back in December. “We have to pause for a moment,” she said about her family’s finances and lifestyle. “But I’ll figure this out, whether it’s through Instacart shopping or something else.”
Whitehead is confident she will find the money elsewhere, too—she mentioned interviewing for other jobs, selling “aggressively” on Teachers Pay Teachers and donating plasma. The harder blow, she said, is being cut off from the children that she has come to know and, by her account, love. When the pandemic began, many families shipped her face masks to make sure she was protecting herself. Some have sent her letters in the mail and gifts on her birthday.
“This is the first day in two years I haven’t gotten up to see them,” Whitehead said on Aug. 6, through tears. “It’s extremely emotional. … I have had the honor of being in their homes, seeing their families, meeting their pets, and hearing about injuries and favorite toys. It’s so different from the American education setting.”
Whitehead is connected to some of her students’ families on WeChat, separate from the GoGoKid platform. But others are “completely gone,” she said. She doesn’t know their real names. They live thousands of miles away. “They’re just gone. That’s the hardest part.”
One student, a girl called Tongtong, is among those that Whitehead feels she’s lost forever. On a video call for this story, she held up a drawing that Tongtong had made for her and then rattled off personal details about the girl: She wanted to be a lawyer. She has a pet bird. Her grandmother has a garden. She gets up every morning before 6 to read.
“I know these kids’ hopes. I know their dreams. I know their frustrations,” Whitehead said. “A million miles away, it’s so familiar.”
Within hours of GoGoKid’s announcement to shut down, parents in China and tutors in America began scrambling to find one another. Parents in China set up virtual private networks to log onto Facebook, which is typically blocked in the country, and join private groups of GoGoKid teachers, searching for their child’s tutors by sharing screenshots from the app and listing usernames. Tutors, in turn, downloaded WeChat and listed themselves under the names they go by on GoGoKid (Quinones Robinson, for example, is “Teacher Edith”).
Everyone, it seemed, was frantic and desperate to be reunited after their GoGoKid accounts suddenly went dark.
One parent in China who found her way into a private Facebook group of GoGoKid teachers responded to questions via Facebook messenger, saying, “It is hard for me to accept the abrupt ending like this. I do believe many other parents should feel the same.”
The parent, who asked that her name be withheld since she is not supposed to be seeking out foreign educators, said that teachers and parents had formed WeChat groups and started Google Docs to share contact information. On Aug. 6, she said that some people had found who they were looking for.
“It is kind of like searching for your friends after the war,” she said. “Maybe I will never find them, since there are more than 10,000 teachers on GoGoKid. You cannot say how big [a] deal it is during your whole life. But the feeling of loss and being deprived would always be there.”
On Aug. 8, she followed up to say she had found her son’s teachers. “Wonders happened,” she wrote.
Parents and tutors who were shut out of GoGoKid have wasted no time trying to recreate the arrangement on their own. Some of the parents of Whitehead’s students have found her and have asked her to continue teaching their children, through private lessons. She’s not sure exactly what that would look like, but imagines it could take place over Zoom and involve a lot of screen-sharing.
“It’s not just my families,” Whitehead said. “It’s all over. They’re desperate.”
Quinones Robinson had one parent contact her already. The child’s mom messaged her and said, “I found you!” And Madrid, the tutor who lives in Thailand, has already taught a private lesson to a student whose parent he was able to reconnect with on WeChat.
“The mother is not happy this happened, but she has more control now over what her child learns,” Madrid explained. “Now, we work together. I show her the lessons, she says, ‘This is what I want.’ It’s more collaborative.”
The same Americans who worry kids in China are being pushed too hard to excel are now helping parents set up an underground tutoring market. But many say that the continuation of private education services is inevitable, so why bow out now?
“Sometimes I feel guilty contributing to this constant education,” Whitehead said. “But the thing is, these parents are going to find a way. The way the society is set up, their future depends on what their children do.”
The Fate of the Others
GoGoKid may be gone, but other tutoring companies hope to hang on—some for mere months, and others for good.
In a recent email to teachers, Magic Ears leadership laid out a sobering future for the company.
“To be clear, the growth of the online ESL [English as a Second Language] industry is no longer being encouraged and it will not be permitted to expand,” the email said. “The new regulations set in place will restrict activity for all ESL companies based in China, it will shrink the industry and eventually it will be dissolved entirely. All companies, including Magic Ears, have downsized. We are now running on only a quarter of the staff that was initially supporting our students and teachers.”
The email goes on to say that the Chinese government will allow tutoring companies to honor their contractual obligations to parents who have already purchased bulk class packages. Some parents had purchased “many months or even a year of classes in advance.” The company expects to offer its final lessons in about a year’s time.
VIPKid emailed teachers on Aug. 7 with its own update.
“First and foremost, let us be clear that we are confident that VIPKid’s business will remain operational,” the email said.
Like Magic Ears, VIPKid will let parents in China who have purchased class packages finish out the lessons they have already paid for. “VIPKid teachers can still count on work for several months with students in China,” the notice reads.
After those classes have been taught, VIPKid’s service in China—at least as it currently exists, pairing North American tutors with Chinese children—will come to an end. But the company’s “long-term vision” involves expanding tutoring services into other countries, subjects and age groups. In the past year, VIPKid has been piloting a partnership with BookNook to provide reading services to students in the U.S. and is developing another service for adult learners across the globe.
“We expect these teaching opportunities to grow in the coming months,” VIPKid told teachers in the email. “It is our intention to minimize the impact to teachers.”
A spokesperson for VIPKid declined to share specific details around how much longer its one-on-one tutoring service in China may run, but said that as of Aug. 7, families in China can no longer purchase new classes with foreign educators.
Many tutors who have ongoing contracts with VIPKid are not optimistic that the company can pull off the international expansion. Chatter in private Facebook groups tends to be fatalistic.
The day after GoGoKid shuttered, Quinones Robinson woke up early and taught a child through VIPKid’s platform for the first time in a long time. She plans to tutor on VIPKid for as long as she can get bookings. But, expecting that VIPKid will fold soon, just like the others, she said she’d be building out her own private tutoring business in the meantime.
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News: China bans off-campus tutoring in education overhaul
China’s government is cracking down on the mainland’s booming off-campus tutoring industry, in one of the biggest overhauls of the education sector.
Local authorities will ban the provision of holiday and weekend tutoring, and will no longer approve the establishment of new tuition centres, according to sources briefed on a policy document that was formally released by the State Council on July 24.
For preschoolers, the new rule also bans any form of tutoring, such as English teaching, under the name of “mind training”. The rules will also be applied to off-campus education for high school students.
Chinese President Xi Jinping had criticised the after-school tutoring sector in 2018, saying it had “increased the burden of students and families’ financial burden” and “violated the laws of education”, as well as “disrupted the normal order of education”.
“The motivation behind the government’s move to ease the burden for students is that many people are not willing to have children due to the huge cost of raising kids. There are fewer and fewer newborns in recent years. And that’s the problem the government needs to solve as the top priority,” said Li Qingshan, research director at EqualOcean, an information service provider and investment research firm.
Chinese authorities have also emphasised that, for students who do not have the opportunity to attend a university, vocational education is another way for them to better themselves.
However, middle-class parents are generally not fans of vocational schools, and the new crackdown is causing a great deal of concern.
“I’m terrified every day. I don’t know if the classes I signed my daughter up for can be completed,” said Ms Zhang, a Beijing-based mother who asked not to use her full name.
“I can’t accept having to stop sending my daughter to after-school tutoring classes, because the school-selection mechanism has not changed and every parent wants their children to go to a better school to receive a better education.”
The new face of liberal studies in Hong Kong
- How are after-school tuition classes in the mainland similar or different to those in Hong Kong?
- How would you feel if holiday and weekend tutoring was banned in Hong Kong, and why?
- From News and Context, identify ONE other concern parents may have about the mainland government’s crackdown on off-campus tutoring.
China’s State Council, the top administrative body, announced a new set of guidelines last month to “ease the burden of young students” for kids going through mandatory education, which covers all children younger than senior secondary school age.
The new guidelines ordered local governments to stop approving new tutoring companies, force existing companies to become non-profit organisations, eliminate classes on weekends and holidays, and ban tutoring companies from receiving foreign investment.
The latest rules are additions to the edict by Chinese President Xi Jinping during a May 21 meeting. In this meeting, he promulgated a set of rules to ease the burden of homework and after-school training for primary and secondary school students. He also instructed the government to rein back on runaway investments in the education industry.
As much as US$10 billion (HK$77.7 billion) of venture capital poured into mainland China’s edtech sector last year alone. This spawned hundreds of start-ups, apps, and edtech platforms that provided instruction in everything from K-12 tutoring to elementary mathematics, language skills and music.
The total number of nationwide student enrolments in K-12 after-school tutoring has increased from 202.6 million in 2015 to 325.3 million in 2019. By 2024, this number is expected to further increase to 659.5 million, according to New Oriental Education, one of mainland China’s largest tutoring services providers.
Language training is one of the fastest-growing segments in tutoring, increasing by 13 per cent to 619.1 billion yuan (HK$744.57 billion) in 2019 from 377.5 million yuan in 2015.
China’s ban on private tutoring is not new. It mirrors a similar move by South Korea in 1980 when the new government, led by Chun Doo-hwan, banned almost all forms of private tutoring in an effort to ease pressure on students in the country’s highly competitive education system.
However, the efforts proved futile as underground private tutoring continued to flourish with Seoul gradually ending the ban.
- Describe two general trends that are shown in the chart.
- The chart is a projection of mainland China’s online education market done in 2017. Based on News and Context, explain how the estimated value and growth rate of the industry might change with the new regulations on private tutoring.
How far will governments go to regulate tech giants?
Issue 1: China’s new private tutoring regulatory watchdog to oversee teachers and curricula for private education companies
In June, China’s Ministry of Education created a new department to oversee the mainland’s off-campus tutoring market and bring regulatory oversight to private teachers and curricula.
The Off-Campus Education and Training Department will supervise institutions that provide training and tutoring to mainland Chinese students from kindergarten through high school, according to the ministry.
It will also work with other regulatory bodies to help private educational institutions set up Communist Party cells and establish rules for incorporation, fees, as well as the content, scheduling and qualifications of training.
Xiong Bingqi, director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, a research firm focused on Chinese education, said after-school tutoring was difficult to regulate without a specific body dedicated to it.
“The new department has two key missions,” Xiong said. “First, to determine requirements for the industry; second, to set up a system to ensure that all off-campus tutoring institutions are qualified.”
He also said that a significant hurdle for reform in the Chinese education system would be curbing “group education anxiety”, and that if the government wanted reforms to stick, society needed to focus more on competence instead of education.
“There is a phenomenon of placing immense importance on a ‘high education’ background in our society,” Xiong said.
“Some employers, including government agencies and institutions, unilaterally emphasise high education when recruiting and employing people, which intensifies the ‘famous school complex’ in society.”
Separately, Sun Jin, an assistant professor at the Department of Early Childhood Education at The Education University of Hong Kong, said the new reforms were a gesture of goodwill to ease the pressure on students, and that schools would need to become central to their education. If parents were to worry about their children falling behind, it would not ease the pressures that created the private tutoring boom, she added.
“It is important to ensure schools are able to fulfil the responsibility assigned and to provide necessary and quality support for all students,” she said.
Sun added that the crackdown might incentivise rich families in China to pay for one-on-one tutoring, but most families could not afford these services and might become even more anxious.
- Based on this Issue and your own knowledge, explain TWO challenges the Off-Campus Education and Training Department might face in its attempts to regulate after-school education services.
- “If the society moves away from paper qualifications, parents will be a lot less anxious, and there will be no need to send their children for extra classes.” To what extent does the information in Issue 1 agree with this statement, and why?
Covid-19 Delta variant causes concern worldwide
Issue 2: Ban on private tutoring may create a black market as demand for education services remains high
China’s ban on private tutoring for children may create a black market with significantly higher prices, according to industry insiders and parents.
Signs of a black market for tutoring are already visible in local media reports. This comes as a number of cities in the central Chinese province of Hubei, including Xiangyang and Huanggang, have tasked enforcement authorities responsible for cracking down on pornography and illegal publications to also police off-campus training. The move treats private tutoring as a form of petty crime.
Despite this, the demand from middle-class families for off-campus classes is likely to remain, as students are pressured to perform on state exams, including the mainland’s notoriously difficult National Higher Education Entrance Examination, or gaokao.
Mary Pan, the mother of a 10-year-old in the western city of Chengdu, enrolled her son in the last available maths tutoring class.
“Everybody else is still taking courses. In the future, if the [state] rules are implemented but other families secretly hire private tutors, we will probably do the same,” she said.
Even though one-on-one tutoring at home could cost 10 times more than institutional services, she said if other parents hired private tutors, then she had no other choice.
A Beijing-based tutor working for New Oriental, a provider of private educational services in mainland China, who declined to be named, said they would keep teaching until the policy was fully implemented. Even then, the crackdown would not kill their career.
They added: “As long as the college entrance exam exists, [tutors] can always make money.”
Meanwhile, an investor in private tutoring in Beijing, who also declined to be named, said tutors who were not officially employed by any public school could still find customers eager to pay for a boost to their child’s performance. They said the price in Beijing for one-on-one tutoring had surged to 3,000 yuan (HK$3,608) per hour, about half the mainland’s average monthly salary.
- How might underground private tuition worsen education inequality in mainland China? Elaborate on your answer using this Issue, Issue 1 and your own knowledge.
- Based on your response above, explain to what extent the situation is reflected in Hong Kong and one other Asian city.
- What might the illustration suggest about ONE possible repercussion of China’s crackdown on private tuition?
- Based on your answer above, explain whether the government or schools should be responsible for resolving this issue.
Cryptocurrency activities raise concern
“The conscientious [education] industry cannot turn into a profit-seeking industry. The off-campus training institutions must be regulated by the law so that they can return to the normal track of educating people.”
– excerpt from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech published in Xi Jinping: The Governance of China, Volume Three
“Without the existence of these extracurricular companies, the role of pushing [my daughter] to study hard will lie on us parents, which will be exhausting. [Many parents are suddenly worried about where they will send their kids to study after school] … They do not want to see their kids’ after-school classes get cancelled.”
– Tina Xie, a Shanghai parent whose daughter is a primary school student
“Education has been crucial to [the] CCP’s legitimacy as a people’s party. The recent crackdown on ed tech and private tutoring can be seen as an attempt to respond to the concerns of the poor.”
– Liu Ye, a sociologist at King’s College London who studies education inequality in China
black market: exchange of goods or services prohibited by governments
Chinese education system: in the mainland, each child must have nine years of compulsory education – six years of primary school and three years of junior secondary education.
To continue their education, they need to take a locally administered entrance exam, after which they would have the option of either continuing in a senior secondary school, or entering a vocational school.
gaokao: also the National Higher Education Entrance Examination. It is a standardised college entrance exam held annually in mainland China. The gaokao is required for entrance into almost all higher education institutions at the undergraduate level.
Before sitting the exam, students must fill in a form listing the universities they wish to get into. Each university has a minimum intake score that a student must achieve to secure a place.
If a student does not meet the requirements for their chosen universities, they will have to retake the gaokao the next academic year.
middle-class family: a social group that falls between the upper and working class. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, about 400 million people – or less than a third of the mainland’s total population – is considered middle class. This is based on the definition of a family of three earning between 100,000 yuan (HK$120,000) to 500,000 yuan (HK$600,000) every year.
off-campus tutoring: also known as private tuition. This is usually a form of teaching which is not provided by the state. Off-campus tutoring can take place at the student’s home, the tutor’s home, a private tuition centre or on school premises. Lessons can also be conducted either face-to-face or online.
K-12: education for children from kindergarten through 12th grade, usually between the ages of five to 18
vocational education: education that prepares individuals to work as technicians or to take up employment in a skilled craft or trade. It is also referred to as career and technical education.
The additional lessons Wang Gang bought to help his only child prepare for China’s rigorous university exam, or gaokao, were not cheap. In addition to group courses from a private education company, he also paid Rmb6,000 ($927) for his daughter to take one-on-one maths and physics sessions with a retired teacher over the month-long winter school break.
“We are just an ordinary family but we cannot have any regrets when it comes to our daughter’s education,” says Wang, who lives in Baoding, an industrial centre in central Hebei province. “Every point counts in the gaokao. It’s just too important. It will basically decide her life and career.”
Late last month, however, the Chinese government declared that parents like Wang were piling too much work on their children. In a shock decree that rocked the country’s stock markets and the share prices of Chinese education companies listed in New York, President Xi Jinping’s administration announced strict new curbs on tutoring companies that drastically reshape an industry worth more than $100bn a year in sales.
The tutoring business in numbers
Percentage of all educational expenses that is spent on tutoring by families in rural areas, according to a 2017 Peking University study
Percentage of all educational expenses that is spent on tutors in China’s first-tier cities, according to the same study
Average annual growth of the private tutoring market in 2017-19, reaching a total of Rmb800bn in sales
This week it appeared that Xi’s nanny state was targeting another lucrative industry — video gaming, which China’s president has previously criticised for increasing “the incidence of myopia among students”.
On Tuesday a state newspaper published a commentary that criticised online video games as “spiritual opium”. The term is a particularly loaded one for the Chinese Communist party, whose history emphasises the “century of humiliation” that began with China’s defeat by the British empire in the first Opium war of 1839-42 and ended with the party’s revolutionary victory in 1949. Even in the absence of any new regulations like those targeting education companies a week earlier, shares in Tencent, China’s largest online gaming provider, fell almost 11 per cent.
The tutoring and video game controversies provide a window on to the mounting stresses and strains of middle-class life in China’s big cities. To outsiders, the world’s second-largest economy can often seem relentless, immune to even the worst pandemic in a century and notching persistently large increases in consumer spending as prosperity spreads rapidly across society.
But for many residents of its larger cities, their lives have become riddled with anxieties that belie the broader sense of progress — from seemingly unattainable home prices to the hothouse pressure of securing the best education for their children and coveted places at leading universities.
And in the background there is the fear that nags at almost every ambitious parent — the possibility that their kids will grow tired of the race and seek refuge in the world of video games and the internet, which Xi has railed against for harbouring so many “dirty things”.
Rattled by parental angst, the party’s response has been to adopt the tactics of a nanny state, potentially reversing elements of the compact it has established with urban residents over the past four decades to steadily reduce its interference in their private lives.
“It is parents’ anxiety that is driving the proliferation of after-school tutoring,” says Christina Zhu, an economist at Moody’s Analytics in Singapore. “That anxiety stems from uneven school quality, intense competition and possibly even a lack of confidence in the social security system.”
At stake, Xi appears to believe, is the party’s ability to maintain unchallenged political control, which ultimately depends on its capacity to meet what the president has termed “the people’s demand for a happier life”.
The property squeeze in numbers
Average annual home price to income ratio in Beijing. In the tech hub of Shenzhen it is 40; in Shanghai it is 26
Percentage of salary that new graduates are paying in rent, according to China’s largest housing agency
Average annual increase in price of new homes in China’s 70 biggest cities in June. In May it was 0.5%
In 2011, when he was still vice-president, Xi told his then US counterpart, Joe Biden, that the Arab spring that was rolling across north Africa and the Middle East had erupted because governments had lost touch with their people, according to two American diplomats familiar with the exchange.
At the 18th party congress in November 2012 that marked the beginning of his first term in power, Xi acknowledged the people’s aspirations for “better education, more stable jobs, higher incomes, more reliable social security and higher standard healthcare, more comfortable living conditions and a cleaner environment”.
Xi and the party have now demonstrated that in order to deliver, they are willing to upend entire industries and intrude into deeply personal aspects of people’s lives, such as how to educate and raise their children. Shortly after Xi criticised video games in 2018 for harming kids’ eyesight, the education ministry recommended that children should have no more than one hour of non-educational screen time each day.
“Xi has made it clear that he intends every policy area to be subject to the leadership of the party,” says Steve Tsang, director of the Soas China Institute in London.
‘A stubborn disease’
Over recent weeks, Xi’s administration has demonstrated that it is not too concerned about the collateral damage investors may suffer as the party extends its reach into new areas. “Beijing will not hesitate to completely overhaul an entire business environment if it deems it politically necessary,” says Chen Long at Plenum, a Beijing-based consultancy. “All sectors related to providing public goods traditionally viewed as not-for-profit will face greater risks.”
Xi had foreshadowed the move against China’s booming tutoring industry in March when he told a group of educators that the sector was “a stubborn disease that is difficult to manage”. “Parents want their children to be physically and mentally healthy and have happy childhoods,” the president added. “On the other hand, they are afraid their children will lose before they even reach the starting line . . . This problem must be solved. Education should not be too focused on scores.”
Ironically, says Zhu at Moody’s, some of the biggest economic victims of Xi’s crackdown on education will be recent university graduates, whose average monthly salary last year was just Rmb5,290, according to Zhilian Zhaopin, a Chinese online hiring platform. “The private tutoring sector provides millions of jobs,” she says. “The entire education sector accounted for 17 per cent of employment for recent graduates in 2020, the highest among all industries.”
For most recent graduates, buying a flat in China’s most desirable cities is out of the question. According to EJ Real Estate, a property research institute, last year the average annual home price to income ratio was 40 in Shenzhen, the high-tech hub bordering Hong Kong, 26 in Shanghai and 24 in Beijing. Cities with ratios of 10 or lower are generally experiencing population outflows and offer little in the way of attractive employment opportunities.
Lianjia Beike, a housing agency, estimates that new graduates now spend more than 40 per cent of their income on rent.
In addition to worrying that some children are doing too much as they prepare for the looming pressures of Chinese urban life, officials and parents also fret about an entirely different phenomenon whereby young people react to mounting social stresses by choosing to tang ping — or lie flat — and withdraw from the world.
Another concept that has caught on this year in China is “involution”, an anthropological term used to describe a process by which some societies fail to realise their maximum economic potential. In Chinese the term is translated as nei juan, meaning to curl or turn inwards.
Che Rui, a Beijing parent, signed his daughter up for supplemental Chinese, maths and English classes offered by some of the country’s largest tutoring companies a few years ago, as she moved from kindergarten to elementary school. He welcomes the government’s crackdown on the sector — but also worries about how to keep his daughter active and motivated outside school.
“The tutoring companies were deliberately creating anxiety,” says Che, who noted that education providers were continuing to bombard him with sales messages even after the government’s broadside against the industry last month. “All discounts and benefits will expire at midnight,” one sales agent warned him over WeChat, the messaging app, if he didn’t rush to sign his daughter up for additional course offerings. “I hope you don’t regret it.”
Che says he is considering signing up his daughter for swimming, music and other recreational lessons, which are still officially encouraged by the government. “I don’t want her to turn inward,” he adds.
Many analysts and parents, however, believe that Xi is addressing the symptoms rather than the disease — the gaokao system itself.
Wang, the father who arranged winter-break cram sessions for his teenage daughter in Baoding, says that “even if there had been a ban, I would still have gone around it by hiring a private tutor”. The Rmb6,000 he spent on a private tutor during that brief period is equivalent to about 40 per cent of his household’s monthly income, and almost one-quarter of the city’s average annual per capita disposable income of Rmb25,200.
“If you don’t let your child study on holidays, other parents with more resources will and your child will be left behind. Imposing a simple solution on a complex problem doesn’t work,” he adds. “It just shuts the door for ordinary families.”
Another much wealthier Chinese father, who has two teenage children and asked not to be named, says “some parents may cheer the crackdown, but the problem lies with the gaokao and the university entrance system”.
“The anxiety is not going away because it’s not like you’re not in the race any more,” says the father, who went to university in the US and is also educating his children outside China. “Are you rich enough and have connections to do one-on-one tutoring? Online education was the starting point for average people. Their anxiety will come back very soon unless the government completely reforms the education system.
“Look at South Korea, Japan and Taiwan,” he adds. “When is tutoring ever going to go away in Asian cultures?”
Additional reporting by Xinning Liu, Xueqiao Wang and Edward White