China moves to discipline ‘crazy tutoring scene’

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Shanghai, China – China is stepping up measures to clamp down on the country’s booming private tutoring industry in an attempt to reduce the academic pressure on students and help address its worsening demographic crisis.

The industry has been under pressure since March this year when President Xi Jinping labelled after-school tuition a “social problem” and the Ministry of Education laid out plans to lighten the load on children and teenagers, urging parents not to send their children for private tutoring and telling teachers to avoid giving their pupils homework.

For many parents, the moves come as a relief.

“We’re happy to see that the government finally starts to pay attention to this crazy tutoring scene,” said Wu Xiaomei, a parent to two children in Shanghai. “We signed up many off-campus classes for our kids mostly under the pressure of seeing other parents doing the same thing.

“We don’t want our kids to fall behind but it’s so much pressure for not just us but also them, so these regulations, hopefully, will make it easier for us, financially at least, to raise them.”

Out of school tuition began becoming popular in the late 1990s as more Chinese students looked to improve their skills in the English language to gain places at universities overseas; however, the industry has taken off in the past 10 years amid intense competition for places at the best schools and universities and a perception among parents that what was being taught during the typical school day was not enough to help their children reach their potential.

But the escalating cost and the hothouse environment has also put many young couples off starting a family.

The new measures – expected to be announced imminently – come soon after China decided to allow each couple to have three children, compared with a previous limit of two amid concern in Beijing about the effect of an ageing population on the economy.

Education is high stakes in China and the annual ‘gaokao’ national college entrance exam, a stressful rite of passage [File: Tingshu Wang/Reuters]The Ministry of Education set up an off-campus education and training oversight agency on June 15, which will oversee the tutoring industry including teachers and curricula. Although there is little detail on the plans, the new regulations are expected to be expansive and include a ban on online and offline tutoring during the weekend, the Reuters news agency reported last week. Such classes account for more than a third of private tuition in China, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.

The tightening regulations have been a disaster for the country’s multimillion-dollar tutoring businesses, after years of what many parents and even tutors themselves have called “morbidly wild growth”.

Shares in three leading tutoring enterprises, New Oriental, Gaotu, and TAL have crashed this year and a number of tutoring companies, both offline and online, have started mass layoffs.

Employees from a number of institutions confirmed to Al Jazeera that people had begun to lose their jobs.

It’s not uncommon to have to pay hundreds of yuan for just one session of private tutoring – that’s almost a tenth of what I earn per month. How can I pay up?

Zhao Jiang, Chengdu parent

The peak of the private tutoring season falls in the summer, when students often use the three month school holidays to prepare for another term’s competitive coursework, but a source at a leading tutoring company told Al Jazeera that more than 100,000 jobs could be at risk before then.

Companies that have recently promised new jobs to candidates have started to withdraw their offers.

“I have already signed my rental contract and was ready to move to Shanghai for my new job, but all of a sudden, I don’t have a job any more,” said Du Lei, a recent graduate from a university in Wuhan who was planning to join Xueersi, a major private tutoring company. She was notified that her job offer had been retracted earlier this month.

“This is absolutely heartbreaking, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do now.”

Du is not alone; among more than half a dozen incoming employees at various tutoring companies catering to primary and secondary school students, a number told Al Jazeera they were in despair. A search on Weibo, a social media platform in China, showed thousands of posts in which employees at major tutoring institutes, both incoming and current, discussed impending unemployment.

Education gaps

The government said it wants to lighten the academic load of children and teenagers and prevent burnout, but despite years of on-again-off-again efforts, the pressure has never really abated.

There is a wide gap in educational resources between China’s cities, suburban and rural areas, as well as between those who are rich and poor.

Shanghai, for example, offers some of the best schools in China with a pool of choices for students and a higher proportion going on to top-ranked universities. Its schools regularly top the global rankings – known as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – that track the performance of 15-year-olds in maths, science and reading.

In places like Guizhou, however, a less prosperous province in southwestern China, where the majority of people reside in rural areas, well-qualified teachers are rare and basic infrastructure is lacking. Many children even have to travel miles a day simply to get to school.

There are large disparities in schools in China with institutions in Shanghai coming out top in the global PISA assessments of 15-year-olds, but rural areas lagging far behind [File: Tingshu Wang/Reuters]From modest beginnings, tutoring companies have secured increasing financial backing – often from deep-pocketed venture capitalists – holding mass recruitment drives for teachers and advertising their products across multiple platforms.

But parents said that as the industry has grown, the cost of tutoring had risen to “unreasonable” levels and only the richest, who were already likely to have been able to get their children a place at the best schools anyway, are now able to afford private tutoring, further widening the gap between those at the top of society and those at the bottom.

“I thought about sending my kid to math tutoring since he’s not really good at it,” said Zhao Jiang, a parent in Chengdu, the capital of southwestern Sichuan province. “But it’s not uncommon to have to pay hundreds of yuan for just one session of private tutoring – that’s almost a tenth of what I earn per month. How can I pay up?”

Despite the intended goal of making education more affordable to the public, many are sceptical about how effective the new measures will actually prove, and some worry the reforms could further exacerbate inequality.

“After the sweeping regulations, it’s likely that only the most prominent companies could obtain the necessary permission from the government to continue operations,” a professional who has worked in the industry for many years told Al Jazeera, requesting anonymity. “And the price they offer will not necessarily be the friendliest to the less wealthy family, potentially solidifying class disparity.”

The government is worried that students are under too much pressure from schooling and tuition and have little time for anything else [File: Aly Song/Reuters]Without subsequently addressing the root causes of the increasing academic pressure among students and the declining willingness among China’s younger generation to have children, some policy experts say the tutoring regulations will only be a Band-Aid on education provision and the demographic crisis.

“I don’t believe the problem solely rests on the tutoring industry,” said Han Dongyan, an education policy researcher based in Beijing.

“The academic pressure will stay no matter how rigid the regulation is towards tutoring simply because without structural change in the inequality of education quality, education will almost always be an industry, and people won’t necessarily feel raising children would be cheaper or easier.”

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