China’s Education Reform-Clampdown or a Good Thing?

Recent “shock” announcements that China will regulate the “off-campus” industry come as no surprise to anyone in the industry. They are long overdue and a very positive development for China, Chinese students and their parents.

Shares on publicly listed companies have plunged with some recording losses of between 50 and 70% of their value. However, anyone who lost money in these recent drops has only themselves to blame. Xi Jinping, back in March made comments that the after-school training constitutes a social problem, this was in the news again in May[1]. Recent action to stall or even prevent IPOs in the technology and education arena should have forewarned any savvy investors that big changes were coming.

It’s no shock; in Q3 of 2019, before there was a COVID spike in the number of online educators, that particular industry received over 15k complaints, 1200 private schools closed down, most leaving both teachers without payment and students without the services they paid for. There were rumblings a long time ago that something needed to be done[2] One thing is obvious, China’s “after school education system” is broken and needs fixing.

As always there are two ways to look at developments in China, the positive way and the Western Mainstream Media (WMSM) way.

An Al-Jazeera headline reads: “As China cracks down on online education, it wrecks IPO prospects[3]” Reuters went a step further and actually quoted Xinhua, one of China’s leading news outlets, in their headline reading: “China confirms ban on for-profit tutoring in core school subjects — Xinhua”

However, in quoting Xinhua’s headlines, the Reuters editorial team fails to point out that the actual headlines they were quoting are very different from the headline they’ve created: in English, Xinhua had several articles with varying headlines all of which were positive. Two of the headlines were: “farewell to off-campus tutoring, schools to give students happier summer break[4]”; and “China regulates off-campus tutoring to ease burden on students[5]”.

Once again, WMSM manipulates headlines to reflect a sinister side to a positive action. Not only is the burden on students too great, the financial burden on their parents is incredible, the desire to see your only child do well and the pressure in a system as crowded as China’s education system creates very serious competition for a small number of top university places.

There are good reasons why this was necessary. For a long time, the industry has been poorly regulated. Despite huge increases in the standard of living throughout the country, China is still going through a process of regulatory reform and there are several aspects of society still in need of change; education is definitely one of them.

Despite recent tightening of the regulations, there are still places where unqualified, non-native English speakers are teaching English, places where an unqualified “white-face” will command more respect than a highly qualified and experienced coloured face. Consequently, even now, there are many organisations, usually smaller, less obvious, often poorly managed and in lower-tiered cities, where foreign teachers are not only unqualified to teach English, they often don’t even speak it well. This is a problem peculiar to the English language industry.

Other problems in the industry are more serious. Many online programs exist, some of them operated from outside China, a few operated in places like the USA, Thailand and the Philippines. Getting a job as an English teacher is too easy: “work from home with hours to suit you” are familiar words in online advertising and many of them are very low quality, high turnover teaching sites. They pay up to $16USD for people who are highly qualified (at least a Master degree to get this much) and as little as $12USD for unqualified, the only criteria for employement being that the teacher is a native speaker. I know this because I’ve been approached by them, even in recent months. They go on to charge the students as much as $80–100USD a lesson.

Then there’s the big boys of the industry. Several of these have policies of collecting huge fees up front then failing to deliver. The most obvious are the companies offering International English Language Testing System (IELTS) training. Something I know a lot about as I was an IELTS teacher as well as an examiner in China.

I have many examples of students making payments, around 20,000 RMB, sometimes as much as 50,000 RMB to be trained for IELTS (the city in which these events occurred has a median monthly salary of 21,000[6]) and then being inadequately trained and unable to achieve the score they need. The British Council (BC) which owns the rights to conduct the test inside of China loves them. Each year (pre-Covid), more than 700,000 students took this test which costs 2,000 RMB and statistics show that 83% of them[7] failed to reach a suitable target to get them into the institution they planned to go — their solution is to keep taking the test, adding more profit to BC’s bottom line, until they finally reach their target. Many of them take 3 or 4 tests, I’ve known kids to take 10 tests and still fail to achieve. However, after just a few hours of private tutoring with someone qualified and experienced enough to guide them through the examiner’s requirements they can make it first time.

At least one organisation conducts massive online training events, students pay a small fee, (50RMB) to listen to a one-hour lecture given by an “expert”. The student numbers on such an event can be as many as 2,000. There’s 100,000 RMB in that lecture with minimal costs.

It is organisations such as these which the government wishes to control. Organisations which prey on the anxieties of parents and because they are large, are believed to be good. Organisations with massive profit lines based on huge investments made by parents. Organisations which are springing up in every town and city throughout China, collecting huge fees and disappearing overnight and organisations outside of China which can’t be controlled.

I for one am very happy there will be what WMSM calls “clampdowns, crackdowns and bans’ because, as China’s media reports, the system will be fairer to the parents, easier for the students and will destroy the businesses of those who see fast or high profits from a basic human right.

[1] https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3135224/teaching-tutoring-centres-lesson-wont-get-root-chinese-students

[2] https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-10-31/Behind-the-runaway-tide-of-China-s-private-education-companies-V2fAvEplYc/index.html

[3] https://www.reuters.com/world/china/china-confirms-for-profit-tutoring-core-school-subjects-is-barred-xinhua-2021-07-24/

[4] http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2021-07/19/c_1310070902.htm

[5] http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2021-07/07/c_1310048101.htm

[6] http://www.salaryexplorer.com/salary-survey.php?loc=3025&loctype=3

[7] https://www.ielts.org/for-researchers/test-statistics

I’m British born Australian citizen. I live in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write about China experiences on and off my bike