In her home in North Carolina, 52-year-old Christina gets up at 6 p.m. After a dinner with her husband, she puts on a nice striped T-shirt, a kitty ear headband (because that makes her student feel elated and engaged), and waits for her favorite student Josh to show up in the virtual classroom, who should have just woken up to a long day of school across the Pacific in China. Christina will continue working for the next 12 hours or so teaching Chinese kids, most of whom are aged between five and 15, how to speak English.
As someone with disabilities and who lost her job during the pandemic, Christina is trying her best to carry on after a new education policy in China dubbed the “double reduction” — to reduce students’ burdens in and out of school — came into effect in late July.
She is among the more than 70,000 remote teachers VIPKid hires in North America, and is now on the verge of losing her job as the result of a single sentence in the five-thousand-word official document (link in Chinese): “The employment of foreign personnel inside the borders of the PRC must comply with the relevant regulations, and the employment of overseas-based teachers to carry out training activities is strictly prohibited.”
This will effectively outlaw the major business of companies such as VIPKid and 51Talk, which provide online English classes by connecting Chinese students with foreign-based English-speaking teachers.
To date, VIPKid has stopped selling new classes taught by foreign-based teachers, but customers who have already purchased packages would still be able to take classes, according to an official announcement issued by the company on August 7.
This is why Christina is still teaching for even longer hours than before the policy change. She has opened all her booking slots to students with remaining classes – some have 30 left, others have hundreds – in order to save as much money as she can before the job is taken away.
A screenshot of a newsletter VIPKid sent to its foreign employees shows that there is no specific deadline set for these classes to be finished. A company called Magic Ears told their teachers that most parents had purchased many classes in advance, and that they would prefer for their children to attend class rather than get a refund.
Despite companies’ promise of continuous booking and payment for at least the next few months, foreign teachers are generally pessimistic that the Chinese government will allow them to finish all remaining classes. For students who have hundreds of classes left, this could take one to two years to finish.
Towards the end of our interview, Christina voiced her confusion about the ban specifically targeting foreign-based teachers. “If this is supposed to relieve the burden on Chinese students and their families, why ban only outside tutors? Why not ban all tutors? … I could teach if I was there, but not here [in the U.S.]?”
A burden-reduction campaign
On the surface, the ban on foreign-based teachers is indeed part of the Chinese government’s latest campaign to reduce students’ academic burden – an issue China has been fighting against throughout the past four decades since the 1980s, with an average of one burden-reduction policy published each year.
The Chinese education system is notorious for its exam-oriented nature, and the policy came right in the middle of growing public discontent about the heavy burden – both financially and mentally – of raising a child in China.
According to the document (link in Chinese) titled “Opinions on Further Reducing the Work Burden of Students in Compulsory Education and the Burden of Off-Campus Training,” the ongoing burden-reduction campaign shall “effectively reduce students’ burdens, family spending on education, and parents’ tutoring burdens within one year, and reach significant achievements within three years.”
All teachers interviewed for this article had seen exhausted kids in their classes. They feel sorry for them but none accept it as a valid reason for the ban on foreign-based teachers. Instead, the true guilty party, as they see it, is the rat race that Chinese students are trapped in, and that taking English classes with native speakers is but one way to give them an edge. Some also hope that their classes might serve as a break for kids exhausted by schoolwork.
Mary Adams, a teacher working for VIPKid, said some of her students had difficulty concentrating on her class “because they were worried about the big stack of homework they had to complete before they went to bed.”
Teacher Alex told Pandaily that she could see some of her students were forced by their parents to take the class because the parents would sit beside the students during the video session, ready to redirect them when they are not paying attention. “I don’t speak Mandarin, but the language of whining and complaining is easy to tell.”
It is important to note, however, that the ban on foreign-based teachers is only one of the 27 measures in total listed in the document. Other measures include reducing students’ homework in school, forbidding foreign investment in the Chinese private education sector and providing free online educational resources.
Unqualified foreign teachers
While the ongoing campaign serves as the latest episode in this long battle on students’ burden, it also marks one further step by the Chinese government in regulating foreign teachers, following a few other policies published in 2019 addressing a market running amuck with unqualified foreign teachers.
Theoretically speaking, compared with those who physically reside in China, foreign-based teachers are harder for the authorities to regulate. The former usually come to China with a visa, which requires that foreigners have a bachelor’s degree or above and a minimum of two years’ work experience to obtain a work permit. They are also required to have filings archived in China’s public security system, so if anything goes wrong, the foreign teacher in question can be traced immediately.
Mu Bei used to work as the contract manager for foreign teachers at Whales English. He told Pandaily that he personally believes this measure is necessary to curb unqualified foreign teachers from entering the education market. “For sure, we as employers have strict requirements for teachers’ qualifications. But this isn’t enough to give a 100% guarantee. Sometimes they have fake documents that you just can’t tell.”
He then gave an example where a foreign teacher defrauded an adult student for 100,000 yuan ($15,425). “There is just no way to chase that money back since the teacher isn’t in China. The best I can do is to fire him.” Mu said his company would do background investigation of the candidates, and on a few occasions they’d catch teachers with criminal records. “But investigations like this take a long time to complete, some teachers may have already been teaching by the time the result is out.”
In a Reddit thread about unqualified foreign teachers in China, several users point out that Chinese companies accept teaching certificates purchased on Groupon (a group-discount shopping platform in the U.S.), which usually lack accreditation.
Kai, a former recruiter for a language center in Shanghai, confirmed to Pandaily that many foreign teachers employed by Chinese companies do use unaccredited certificates they purchased online with as little as $20. International and public schools wouldn’t accept them, but private companies do because unqualified teachers and non-native speakers are paid much lower than those with qualifications. “The parents don’t really care where the teacher comes from, or whether they have credentials. Chinese parents are content as long as you give them a foreign face,” Kai added.
But will banning all foreign-based teachers help address the concern about unqualified foreign teachers? Maybe, but chances are that this approach misses the real target.
First of all, companies who hire unqualified teachers tend to be small institutions that have never been regulated in the first place. Since the enactment of the policy in late July, big companies have been scrambling to adjust into accordance with the new policy, but small fish have so far remained unnoticed and intact.
On Chinese ebay-like shopping platform taobao.com, for example, typing in “English-speaking foreign teachers” (英语外教) yields more than 4,000 results. Some stores have been running for over seven years, and the price for a trial class can be as low as 4.9 yuan ($0.76) — you can barely get a soda drink in China with that money, but you can buy a 25-minute one-on-one class with an English-speaking teacher.
A seller called “GG English” claims to hire only the “highest-quality” teachers. Candidates allegedly must pass tests on language skills, critical thinking and a “systematic theoretical training” before they can take any students, and the passing rate is an incredible 4.8%.
A 28-minute trial class with a Filipino teacher costs 9 yuan at GG English. For teachers from the UK, the US or South Africa, the price is 37 yuan per class. With a teacher from big companies such as VIPKid, the price is four times higher at around 165 yuan per class.
I purchased a trial class with a Filipino teacher. When I asked to see the teacher’s credentials, the seller sent me an audio file of a teacher with the heavy accent of a non-native speaker – just not the kind of English teacher one would expect them to employ with a 4.8% hiring rate. I tried asking for a different teacher. Less than a minute later I got a video clip with a guy speaking kindly to the camera, introducing himself as a proud Filipino with a Master’s degree in English Education, but I was never shown any of the certificates.
The same thing happened with three other sellers on Taobao – no verifiable credentials, only video or audio clips. I met a teacher who made grammar mistakes like “I cannot able to teach in the whole day…”, and another one who had trouble recalling the word “senior.”
Matthew is a researcher at Peking University, and has spent the past year doing fieldwork in an extra-curricular tutoring center in Beijing. He contends that big companies are subject to stricter regulation because the sheer size makes them easier to get caught by the authorities.
“It is small companies that are doing illegal things,” Matthew said, recalling a visit to a small English language center in Beijing where he met a foreign teacher with “the thickest Russian accent I’ve ever heard.” The guy claimed bluntly that he came from Australia.
“Unless they have surprise inspections and storm the classroom, it’s very hard to regulate these small places.” Matthew said. It is even harder to regulate tiny businesses that operate exclusively online, like the ones on Taobao, in part because as a shopping platform it does not have the power to supervise sellers’ operations in regards to education, and education regulators cannot carry out physical inspections of these sellers.
Personally, Matthew supports the crackdown on after-school tutoring because it gives children their childhood back. But on the other hand, he contends, well-intended policies could have unforeseen consequences.
Large companies are more motivated and financially capable of verifying and hiring qualified English teachers from abroad, whereas small companies circumvent regulation easily.
Now that the ban has driven big players out of the game, students are left with a gray market filled with unregulated players and unqualified teachers.
Companies are reportedly seeking China-based foreign teachers to continue their business. But even before the pandemic when there were more than 400,000 foreigners working in China as foreign teachers, only one third of them were qualified, according to a report by the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs.
Kai, the recruiter for a Shanghai English training center, has been working with foreign teachers in China for more than four years. She revealed to Pandaily that among the foreign teachers who physically live in China now, at least 50% are unqualified non-native English speakers from Russia and Ukraine, many of whom came to China through recruitment agencies on tourist or business visas, which do not permit working as teachers in China. “There’s no such thing as regulation. As long as no one reports you to the authorities, you are all good.”
Also, foreign teachers with qualifications tend to work for international schools or public schools that provide higher salary and more job security. These institutions are located mostly in big cities. Companies such as VIPKid therefore provide students in small cities with affordable and relatively reliable access to native speakers of English. According to an analysis report by iResearch, among all customers of K-12 English tutoring services in China, 60.3% are located in second, third and fourth-tier cities. In this sense, blocking these students’ access to learning English with native speakers will very likely further facilitate the regional imbalance of educational resources.
For foreign teachers who have established bonds with their Chinese students, the symbolic meaning of the ban goes beyond the government’s determinition to ease students’ burdens, and represents a closing door through which people on both sides could communicate their life and cultures.
Mary Adams, for example, has two adopted children from China. She has been working for VIPKid for over four years. Teaching Chinese students gave her an opportunity to learn about the birth country of her adopted children. While the policy change has put an end to her career as an English teacher, Mary remains grateful to have been able to connect with so many Chinese families. “The job has given me more love and respect for the culture as well as an individual love for the families I have come to know.”
A teacher who goes by the name Endure expressed similar grief about the broken bonds between her and her students that this policy change will potentially cause. She has become good friends with her Chinese students’ parents over the years, and has even hosted some of the students in the United States. With the parents, she could discuss issues such as different governments’ handling of the pandemic or China’s education policies. She recalled that a parent once expressed anti-American sentiment, but nonetheless admitted to her, “you are not like other Americans.”
Endure believes this bond has allowed her and the parents to come to a cultural and global understanding of one another, and that “the damage it [the policy change] has done most is to the connection between our people. For that, I weep.”