Sunday, May 26, 2024

An inside job

A realistic look at what’s happened to extracurricular teaching in China, by Melanie Butler

On the 14th of September, The New York Times ran an article on the Chinese crackdown on its after-school study market. The headline read ‘Reversing gears – China increasingly rejects English’.

Since July, strict new restrictions on private sector English courses have seen the share prices of big Chinese operators like TAL and New Oriental plummet, while online tutoring specialists, including VIPKid and 51Talk, have let go all their off-shore teaches.

While Chinese actions have undoubtedly decimated the in-country market for private English language classes, ELT is not the only sector to be hit. It’s worth bearing in mind that in mainland China, as in most of the rest of East Asia, cram schools have traditionally taught all academic subjects, including English. Indeed, an increasing number of English language specialist providers, such as Rise Education, have used a CLIL model: that is, teaching other curriculum subjects through English.

The new ‘double reduction’ policy, published on 2 July, focuses on courses for children aged between six and 15, and applies to all school curriculum subjects including maths, history and Chinese, as well as all foreign languages.

The policy mandates change for both mainstream schools and private after-school providers whether on- or off-line. Primary and middle schools are required to reduce the amount of homework in all curriculum subjects, while after-school providers are banned from teaching these subjects to this age group at weekends or during the school holidays.

Both sectors are now obliged to follow the Chinese curriculum and forbidden to use materials produced abroad. As for foreign teachers (many of whom are employed in state schools), those currently in China are allowed to stay so long as they meet the qualification requirements. Suitably qualified new teachers will be allowed in, but no online teaching from overseas is allowed.

Preschool provision, which is predominately run in the private sector, is also affected. Online courses for children aged three to six have been banned entirely and face-to-face courses in any academic subject, specifically including the teaching of foreign languages, are forbidden.

“No new providers can be licensed and existing ones must operate on a 
not-for-profit basis”

New regulations for the private sector do not end there. No new providers can be licensed and existing ones must operate on a not-for-profit basis. They cannot be listed on the capital markets nor be funded by foreign money. Limitations on their course prices are being introduced and any advertising will be strictly controlled.

What’s behind the crackdown? Well, it certainly isn’t a vendetta against language schools. The government claims it’s to reduce the stress on students. China watchers say the country wants to reduce the cost of raising a child in order to enable the population to have more children. But a report from EdTech thinktank EDT & Partners suggests that by offering low-quality courses and using hard-sell tactics, the providers may have brought this on themselves: “Many of these education companies relied heavily on technology to the detriment of the quality of the services they provided…

“The reality is that most online institutions have been spending inordinate amounts of money on commercial advertising and customer subsidies, and the government perceived such expenditure as distorting the true nature of education.”

Although so far it has only been implemented in nine Chinese cities, the impact of the new policy on an industry once valued at US$120 billion has been enormous.

Staff numbers have been slashed. GaoTu Education has laid off 10,000 staff, a third of its total workforce. TikTok owner ByteDance has reportedly closed two online schools, GuaGuaLong and Qingbei, and scrapped GoGoKid altogether.

Plans to list on capital markets have been dropped by Spark, Zuoyebang and VIPKid, while companies have pivoted to focus on sectors like the adult and vocational-training markets, which have not been affected. Several have announced plans to sell their existing product abroad.

So far only one big player is meeting the government demand for not-for-profit provision. New Oriental, founded in 1993, has recently registered a training institute for middle school kids in Beijing. Its core business, teaching senior high school students aged 15- plus, an age group not yet covered by the new policy, will be managed as a separate business.

Of course, teachers have been hard hit. Chinese graduates, 17% of whom worked in some aspect of education before the crash, are being pictured online holding placards offering their services as private tutors, though that too is illegal.

Recruitment of foreign teachers has plummeted, with one job site offering just two jobs in China: a legal one in a university, a sector unaffected by the double reduction, and one promising well-paid jobs to any foreigner, no qualifications needed, which is certainly illegal and possibly a scam.

Will the Chinese after-school industry recover? Probably, but as EDT & Partners say in its report it “…is hard to envisage a future when the industry could revive the splendour and the activity registered in 2020” (https://

Find out more about the impact on language travel on opposite page.

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Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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