A year after China’s private tutoring crackdown, classes have moved underground as companies struggle to pivot
- Many parents are paying more than ever before to keep their kids in private classes, fearful they will lose their edge in China’s competitive education system
- China’s ban on for-profit private tutoring in July 2021 has also forced once lucrative educational businesses to pivot to live streaming and hardware
China’s severe crackdown on private tutoring one year ago this month, which came on suddenly with an unexpected policy change, has forced many businesses to shut down and driven private classes underground, according to industry insiders and parents.
Despite the cutback in classes, demand for additional training remains strong from parents who worry about their kids falling behind.
Wang said she has seen her daughter’s academic performance regress since the new regulation. Her daughter is no longer among the top 10 students in her math class, for example, once a consistent achievement for the student, who starts fifth grade next semester. In two years, she will compete to be admitted to a good middle school.
“She is having a sense of disparity and crisis,” Wang said.
When Wang decided to have her daughter attend private classes during the summer vacation, she found a teacher through a recommendation from other parents. The teacher hosts classes at her home “secretly”, according to Wang.
“As far as I know, her well-performing classmates are all taking private classes,” Wang said of her daughter. “There is a so-called genius boy in the class, who in fact is going to finish middle school physics this summer.”
China’s policy, which was intended to free students from excessive classes, “actually increased our financial burden”, said Wang, who used to spend less than 200 yuan (US$30) for a two-hour class with 10 students. The “secret” one-on-one session costs more than double.
“Things are getting a bit distorted now,” Wang said.
The Chinese government’s ban of for-profit tutoring on school subjects such as math and English was announced at the end of last July, dealing a blow to the country’s thriving private tutoring industry and wiping out billions of dollars in related stocks. As some of these firms are listed in the US, Beijing’s abrupt crackdown on education has further dampened investor confidence in Chinese stocks.
The rationale for Beijing is that China has to reduce the burdens placed on students, who are often forced to take additional classes and training by their parents to stand out in an extremely competitive society.
But without changes to a state exam system that decides using scores alone whether students qualify for a good school or university, demand for additional help to improve performance remains high.
“There is still demand for off-campus tutoring because school admissions are based on exam scores. It is natural that private teaching has gone underground,” said Xiong Bingqi, director of 21st Century Education Research Institute. “What is needed isn’t the comeback of tutoring, but the reform to the current evaluation system.”
William Li runs an education consultancy in Chengdu that helps families make decisions on schools and majors and provides tutoring. Li said the biggest problem facing the industry is “talent drain”, as teachers are willing to go solo to teach private underground classes. “One can make 800 yuan from one ‘secret’ course, while an institutional class pays some 300 yuan,” he said.
By the end of February, the number of companies providing offline tutoring services had plummeted 92 per cent to 9,728, from about 124,000 before the crackdown in July 2021, according to the Ministry of Education.
In northwestern Beijing’s Zhongguancun, an area known for its tech companies and also dubbed the “tutoring hub of the universe”, none of the educational companies at the Yinwang Centre currently teach school subjects, a building receptionist said. Before the ban, a dozen taught such courses, and at least five were well-known chains, the person said.
After the ban, the hit to the industry was strong and immediate. Companies scrambled to make ends meet.
In one example of success, New Oriental Education and Technology Group, which has closed about 1,500 centres, became a rising star in the live-streaming e-commerce business.
Rivals are also eyeing a similar pivot. Last week, TAL Education, another big tutoring player, announced a live-streaming contest that will select a “team of superb hosts”.
Another new direction for tutoring firms is hardware. NetEase-owned Youdao Inc launched a series of products including a dictionary pen that scans and translates text, a portable printer and a smart dictionary.
ByteDance was one of the earliest to move into educational gadgets with its signature smart lamp, which enabled parents to make video calls to their children working on school assignments at home.
Puxin Education, which delisted from the New York Stock Exchange in May, said earlier this year that it was weighing whether to run its own chain of restaurants.
Xiong, from 21st Century Education Research Institute, said that no matter what direction the companies are exploring, there should be a “positive and supportive” regulatory environment, as long as it is legitimate.