The gray market of private tutoring will defy clampdowns as long as China’s gaokao and other exams are not reformed. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing’s latest policy of reining in tutorial schools has been met with a mixed response since it was announced last weekend. 

Many tutorial and learning centers throughout China, which would otherwise have had a bumper summer period of takings, now have to dismiss their classes. They face a steep learning curve trying to understand Beijing’s intentions so they can comply.

This is because a policy paper issued by the Chinese State Council and the Communist Party’s Central Committee banned most paid, after-school sessions. 

The 30-plus measures contained in the paper are designed for quick nationwide implementation aimed at stopping the bonanza of tutoring and exam cramming this summer, when most classes at public schools are suspended in July and August. 

China will stop licensing new tutorial centers and course providers that cater to elementary and high school students. Operations of existing ones will face tougher reviews and be regulated as not-for-profit entities whose programs, online or offline, must be approved by the government.

No classes or prepping can be offered during summer or winter breaks or on national holidays and no listed companies or foreign capital can invest in these tutorial centers. 

The slew of measures to tackle China’s years-long proliferation of tutorial schools are described by Xinhua as Beijing’s new “curriculum” for future education reforms to address some of the common gripes of students and parents.

Xinhua cited the instructions from President Xi Jinping to “unfetter” young pupils from the burden of homework and exams and give them more time to play and work out. 

Some common complaints center on what some observers see as the private education sector’s “encroachment” on the public system.

Good teachers are poached or recruited as part-time tutors and parents have to pay exorbitant fees to send kids to after-school classes during weekends and long breaks for them to ace exams because these teachers reserve the best of their care and capabilities for such private sessions.

Now, under the new guidelines, a public school teacher would risk being fired or have his qualification revoked if found to be moonlighting for a private learning center. 

Beijing is trying to address some of the gripes of students and parents with the new policy paper, but the underlying problem is China’s lack of quality education. Photo: Xinhua

New Oriental, China’s largest private education company listed in Hong Kong whose share price buckled under the weight of Beijing’s crackdown, has been quick to vow full compliance and follow-up “self-examination and correction.”

The beleaguered education giant with bricks-to-clicks dominance in China said it would strive to be a “valedictorian” and lead the entire sector to enforce and embrace the new rules.

New Oriental has started to pull its courses and exam-related programs that may overlap with those offered at public schools from its website, amid some reports about lay-offs across its campuses in major cities. 

During New Oriental’s heyday, its founder Yu Minhong, a Peking University (PKU)-turned-education entrepreneur, once told shareholders that his company would seek to carve up a 40% share of China’s burgeoning private tutoring industry valued at US$100 billion. 

Yet the old school ethos of getting top grades for top-flight universities and upward mobility runs deep among nearly all Chinese parents, who are eager to know how their kids’ schools stack up against others and want them to fare well academically to gain a passport to success.

Notwithstanding the clampdown, the grey market of private tutoring will still be there and even thrive as long as elite Chinese universities and society at large continue to judge students by their marks in China’s annual, highly competitive gaokao, or the national college admission exam that a student can normally only be allowed to sit once in his lifetime.

The gaokao scores, to a large extent, may decide a student’s academic and career path and even his job, income and social status. 

Private tutoring has proliferated in China and the exam-focused education system is perpetuating the problem. Photo: WeChat

Eric Mer, a PKU associate professor of political sciences, said some parents still had faith in gaokao as a relatively fair and transparent selection system and they all hoped their children could score highly while China’s education system remained highly exam-oriented. 

Mer said Beijing’s latest policy paper may decimate the profitability of New Oriental and the like but the demand for private tutoring and supplementary learning would still be there when people thought Beijing had flunked the policy test to ensure fair and equally accessible quality education for all.

The scholar said the latest move could be part of Beijing’s broader consideration to encourage childbearing by making education less costly and stressful, yet the tutoring ban could just be a palliative, not a cure, for the vicious competition perpetuated by gaokao and the lack of quality education as well as pluralistic academic and career pathways. 

China News Service also reported that some parents in Shanghai, one of the cities chosen by the Education Ministry to trial a “no exam, no homework” scheme for some elementary school pupils, now assign work to their kids and force them to attend private online classes. 

These parents complained to the official news agency that such a well-meaning scheme would hardly relieve their pressure and instead saddle them with additional education costs.

Teachers in Shanghai and elsewhere face bigger workloads. Starting from the next academic year in September, they will have to work extra hours with the launch of school-based after-school learning, support and extramural programs.

China’s newly-installed Education Minister Huai Jinpeng recently promised working parents that school hours would be extended and “synced” with common working hours and that young students would be taken care of after school.