Parents and Employees in Education Sector Caught in Limbo as China Cracks down on For-profit Tutoring

“Welcome to our WeChat group, I am your class teacher JJ and we will start our lessons online starting 12th of July, you can download our app beforehand.”

This is the message one gets when added into a WeChat group now made for parents, impacted by the “double reduction” policy aiming to tighten rules on for-profit curriculum tutoring companies in China.

According to JJ, the number of friend requests from desperate parents is so overwhelming that sometimes her WeChat account malfunctions.

Xiao Xu, parent of a four-year old in Shanghai is one of them. She used to bring her child one day out of a week to Best Learning English (贝乐学科英语), a private institute in Shanghai specialising in the American K12 education system and using the American kindergarten textbook “Wonders” while teaching toddlers the language.

“We do want him to learn English from an early age, it is not only about the language but also another mindset.” Xiao Xu told Pandaily. “However the public kindergarten system in China doesn’t allow that. So we have to bring him to a private one.”

Originally from Sichuan and now settled down in Shanghai, Xiao Xu is one of China’s first-tier city middle class who believes in social ascension and international education. “My child loved that school. They’d learn the language through painting, singing and intellectually-stimulating games,“ Xiao Xu recalled. “The courses were fun and weren’t a burden at all for my child. It was really hard for him to say goodbye to his teacher the day the school had to close its doors.”

To date, Best Learning English (贝乐学科英语) has stopped enrolling new students but has gathered existing students and their parents in a WeChat group for further online lessons, while many wealthy parents are ready to pay for even more expensive private, one-on-one tutoring.

“We’d have to keep up with that,“ Xiao Xu admitted, “but we are still figuring out a solution with my husband. Maybe we’ll eventually put our kid into a bilingual or international school.”

China used to have the world’s largest pre-college private education market with an estimated 1 million providers in the country. After new guidelines were imposed, however, education stocks plunged on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and 76% of the Chinese private tutoring market collapsed. Some companies are pivoting to non-academic tutoring or adult vocational training.

That is exactly what is happening with New Oriental, the largest private educational services company in China by revenue and leader of the estimated 400 billion dollar private tutoring market. The group has seen its market value plummet by 47% since the release of the stringent policies.

“Now we focus more on soft skill training courses and leisure activities like chess class, robot training class.” Shirley Li, an employee of the company’s overseas school application services told Pandaily. “The whole company is restructuring and there have been a lot of lay-offs recently.”

“Even more parents from first-tier cities are considering to send their children overseas to attend pre-college education now, and most parents are almost blind-folded. It is all about competition.” Shirley said. “Now the situation in the country is tricky: teachers once employed in private education cannot find schools for their next job and parents cannot find teachers for their kids. The pre-college education in China is simply too difficult without any private tutoring. It is not enough just to reduce the burden on students by closing the needed institutions. “

With one of the world’s most competitive education environments, China is famous for the formidable university entrance exam – the Gaokao. The Gaokao is the culmination of the public schooling system and serves as a determining factor for which universities its takes are able to attend and therefore the fate and future of the Chinese youth.

When the Gaokao was first restored in the 1970s the enrollment rate was as low as 4.78 percent versus 81.13 percent last year. Therefore, today the competition is mostly about China’s highest-ranked universities meaning “985” and “211”. For middle-class and wealthy families in China, private tutoring and even international schooling is one way to thrive in the gruelling competition. Some might go far as to pay 1000 RMB per hour for American high school lessons in order for their kids to prepare the SAT.

“The Gaokao is difficult but it is one thing that I never regret having done,”Shirley admitted. “In many ways it is the fairest talent selection system. But the fierce competition paired with many private tutoring solutions only feeds the anxiety of parenting in China.”

In recent years, the word “chicken kids” (jiwa, 鸡娃), a term that represents the young generation under chronic academic stress fuelled by their parents, has been trending on Chinese internet channels. In a derivative term, the “chicken parents” (jiwa jiazhang, 鸡娃家长) are the anxious parents who are “shot up with chicken blood”. In other words, they are full of unlimited energy to fill their child’s entire daily schedule with private tutoring lessons outside of their regular school hours.

“Over the years, I’ve seen too many kids suffering from depression at a very young age,” says Veronica, a former staff member of EF Education First in Shanghai, an international education group specialising in English training. “There are so many anxious and disoriented parents who force their kids to take so many lessons and set such high expectations for them like entering an Ivy League university. It is true that, by seeing them, our generation doesn’t want to have kids.”

According to a China Youth Daily survey, about 30% of respondents could not accept the idea that their kids would achieve less than they have. Data from The Economist shows that China has the highest youth suicide rate in the world.

For Chinese authorities, it is time to reduce the anxiety of parenting and boost the country’s birth rate by overhauling a sector that has been “hijacked by capital”.

“It was all about KPI and everyone is sales”, both Shirley and Veronica agreed on the business model of private tutoring institutions. “But they exist for a reason. The market still has demand even though the raft of policies hit the sector hard.”

“With the shift of policy, big educational brands will perish and many teachers will change industry,” said Veronica. “And that means there will be fewer private tutors on the market demanding higher pay, and only the wealthiest can afford this. I fear this will further cause social gap.”

For Robin Liu, who worked at PingAn Haoxue (previously TutorABC) before the crackdown on private tutoring, the market demand seems to be somewhat of an illusion. “I am rather supportive of the policy,” Robin told Pandaily. “The so-called demand is actually a fake demand fuelled by capital. Parents don’t need that. But since they have that option and money to spend, they will go down that road.”

In a document recently released by the Ministry of Education of China, the ongoing burden-reducing campaign shall “effectively reduce family spending on education, ease anxieties of parenting in the country, and achieve significant effects in the next three years.”

For many people in the education sector, the solution lies in integrating more of the positive aspects of private training centers and after-school child care services into the public system. “The public system might not be able to absorb all the teachers who lost their jobs in the training centers,” Robin said. “But at least there are some good aspects that they can take.”

The current education system in China is notorious for being exam-oriented and allows little space for children to discover themselves and be self-driven. Many have been struggling to change the situation with alternative offerings.

“The best education for Chinese kids is definitely not to be found overseas,” says Yinuo Li, former China director for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and founder of YiTu school, an innovative education program in Beijing. Upon returning to China after 10 years working and living in the US, she says that she had tremendous difficulties finding a school for her children. “The international ones train our children to become foreigners, which I don’t agree with, and public ones follow a one and only logic which is fierce competition and elimination. With YiTu, I would like students to think about their life on a deeper level than the current system can offer.”

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However, these “innovative” schools that promote a much more diverse educational concept have had limited enrollment and often find themselves in a legal grey area. In a 2018 survey about innovative education programs in China, most of these schools had been founded between 2012 and 2016, with less than 50 students enrolled and have been struggling to obtain legitimate licenses recognised by the Ministry of Education in China.

Among parents and employers in the education sector interviewed by Pandaily, many are looking forward to the next step. In Shirley’s words, “If the government is about to take control, then it’s better to control it to the end. Now we are caught in limbo.”