China’s crackdown on tutoring leaves parents with new problems

By Helen Davidson

In 2018, Ms Hu spent a third of her annual income sending her child to summer school in Shanghai. In the following year, the cost went up. Still, she and her partner paid the fees, such is the competitiveness in Chinese children’s education.

“My son started to learn English at age five. I feared he would be left behind if we don’t do so,” she said.

Hu and her husband are among the vast majority of parents who pay for extracurricular private tutoring – survey estimates range from 65% of families with school-aged children in 2016, up to 92% this year. The classes often come at eye-watering costs that contribute to an industry worth more than $150bn (£108bn). Last month, however, China’s government announced what appeared to be the death knell for the sector.

On 23 July, China’s highest governing body, the state council, released new rules barring for-profit companies from tutoring in core curriculum subjects, and foreign investment in such companies. No new licences would be issued and all existing outfits must register as non-profits, it said.

The move was announced in part as a measure to reduce pressure on parents and students in China’s hyper-competitive education field.

“Parents hope their children ... have a happy childhood, [but] they are afraid they will lose at the starting line in a competition over scores,” said China’s leader, Xi Jinping, in March.

The quality and resource of education varies greatly between urban and rural areas, from province to province, and between top- and lower-tier cities. There are few university places relative to the number of students, and even fewer at prestigious universities, which are concentrated on the east coast and in major cities. It is in these areas where private tutoring has exploded in the past decade.

“Education and health are the two main concerns of Chinese people,” said Dr Ye Liu, a sociologist and senior lecturer in international development at King’s College London.

“The [private education] supply catered to the demand from urban families,” Liu said.

“Because of the one-child policy, urban families used education as an investment channel, to reproduce the privileges of cultural capital – good universities, studying abroad. They need the private tutoring [because] it’s so competitive.

Liu doesn’t think the reforms will work on their own, when the state education system remains unequal and highly competitive.

“It’s no good isolating private tutoring if we don’t address the uneven distribution of education provision [across China] … The crackdown hasn’t been accompanied by more policy proposals to reduce unequal distribution of education provisions, resources and opportunities.”

As the private education industry grew, it accumulated massive wealth and power, and observers, including Liu, believe that the second primary aim of the policy is to crack down on the industry in the same way authorities have to big tech. In the past year, Chinese authorities have targeted mega-corporations, including Tencent, Didi and Alibaba, with investigations, financial orders, sanctions and public dressing-downs of their executives, under the remit of an anti-monopoly drive.

While there had been signs from China’s leaders that a crackdown was coming, the July announcement blindsided the industry. It triggered falls of as much as 60% in the share price of some tutoring companies listed on the New York and Hong Kong exchanges. Knowing that there is little ability to resist a Chinese government order, some of the biggest companies, including Gaotu Techedu, the New Oriental Education and Technology Group, and the US-listed Tal Education Group, released statements saying the new policy was not good news for them but that they would comply with the instructions.

Debut of the New Oriental Education and Technology Group on the Hong Kong stock exchange
The New Oriental Education and Technology Group only made its debut on the Hong Kong stock exchange in November last year. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

“The new regulation will negatively impact its business on school-age, extra-curriculum services,” a statement from Gaotu said. “It will possibly harm the company’s profit and future outlook. Nevertheless, the company will actively seek instructions and cooperate with the authority.”

There is some discussion that the reforms also seek to boost China’s efforts to stave off a looming demographic crisis by reducing the cost of raising children. The plunging birth rate is driven by the high cost of living, low wages, long hours and little upward mobility. Much of the feedback to the reforms – including from Hu – said they don’t go far enough to change anyone’s mind about having any, or any more, children.

In a poll by a Chinese media outlet on the social media platform Weibo, almost 70% of the 2,400 respondents said they didn’t think the policy reform would reduce pressure on parents. Just 18% thought it would partly or entirely ease pressure.

In Shanghai, Hu said the policy’s intention was good, and that she would now spend more time with her child doing outdoor activities during the holidays.

However, she is among many who fear that other parents will instead spend their money on private individual tutors – a difficult-to-regulate sector not yet targeted by the reforms – which would maintain or even exacerbate the education gap.

“It is financially and mentally challenging for parents to send their children to extracurricular schools. One could see piles of cash behind a child’s excellence,” said one parent and lawyer, who gave only their surname, Chang.

“At the same time, I am concerned that parents will have to shoulder all the burden of education of their kids. Those with good grades prevail, and the rest will be left far behind.”

Liu says the government needs to diversify and promote education pathways, encouraging and funding more students – particularly those from lower socioeconomic regions – to enrol in vocational education, apprenticeships and other skills training.

“The key is for the government to use their propaganda skills to associate these jobs with high social status and high returns.”

Additional reporting by Jason Lu