Two years ago, Bi, the mother of an outdoor-loving kindergartener in Beijing, registered her son for English classes three times a week to give him what she described as “an immersion environment” to learn the language.
But now, as the Chinese government bans all tutoring related to school studies after school and on weekends and vacations, Bi, a middle school teacher who doesn’t speak English, has had to stop her son’s tutoring.
That’s especially troubling for Bi because learning English is mandatory in Chinese schools, and it’s one of four main subjects of the National College Entrance Examination, or Gaokao, which her son will take when he is 18. For most students in China, the exam is the sole determinant of whether they will be admitted to top universities in big cities, which often guarantee a better job with higher wages over the length of their careers. In a worst-case scenario, he could not be admitted into any university.
“What if he will not be able to keep up with his fellows,” asked Bi, who asked not to be identified by her full name out of fear of losing her job for speaking to a foreign media outlet. “The school only offers two, 30-minute English classes per week to first and second graders without any take-home assignment. We have to do something before he enters middle school.”
In the wake of the Chinese government crackdown on tutoring programs to alleviate stress on students, reduce families’ education costs and ensure equal access to education, Chinese regulators announced in June they would shut down the K-12 after-school tutoring industry. It’s a blow to a business that generated $123 billion in 2019, according to a 2020 report by the consulting firm Oliver Wyman.
The State Council, China’s highest executive body of state power, on July 24 officially banned all tutoring programs from teaching school curriculum such as English, math and Chinese, with few exceptions. Private tutors, who are often licensed public school teachers trying to make extra cash, are also banned from teaching off of their campuses.
But that isn’t stopping parents from seeking help for their children. Some parents are switching to more expensive private tutors whether or not they get permission from the government. Bi said the parents in her circle secretly employ private tutors or public school teachers to teach in their homes even if they usually charge more than tutoring companies.
“That’s why I’m hesitant,” Bi said. “Private tutors are charging us 2.5 times more than the institution. The decision [of hiring tutors] varies widely from family to family and how much we want to spend on a child’s education.”
The Ministry of Education could not be reached for comment.
“The burdens of too much tutoring and the rising costs of hiring tutors will be effectively reduced within one year,” Yanpin Hu, an inspector at the supervision bureau under China’s Ministry of Education, said during a news conference in August. “It will be significantly reduced in three years.”
Driven by China’s university entrance exam, which can only be taken once a year, the country’s education system forces students and their parents to support this grueling, test-focused system for much of their children’s young lives. For those from rural regions or lower-income households, which typically only have one child, this exam can help move their children to larger cities to study and ultimately land more lucrative jobs when they graduate.
“That’s ‘involution,’” Bi said, referring to a commonly used term on Chinese social media, which describes the highly competitive circumstances that persuade parents to do something because their peers are doing it.
“I would not dare to allow my son to chill at home,” Bi said. “He’s happy at the moment. But he will blame us for not taking him to tutoring when he grows up and fails the exam.”
The world of hypercompetitive tutors is especially concentrated in urban areas like Beijing and Shanghai, where there are more experienced teachers and financial support from the local government.
“The cities have opportunities for parents to make choices,” said Fred Mednick, a professor of education science at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, in Belgium. “It’s an issue of choice, which is connected to the issue of equity.”
The soaring demand makes tutors continue teaching despite the risk. Jennie Shi, a 24-year-old private tutor in Beijing, has taught elementary-level English for two years. But she got laid off as the tutoring institution she worked for closed in June. She said she now runs an unlicensed private tutoring studio.
“The parents are begging me to keep teaching because they couldn’t find someone else who’s familiar with their kids’ study habits,” Shi said, using her English name to avoid reprisals.
She charges $30 an hour compared to the $12 hourly rate institutions charge. But, she said, “parents never complain about the prices.”
Her tutoring business doesn’t have the necessary operating permits issued by the local education administration, she said. To meet certain requirements, she needs to get a teaching license and have all her tutoring materials follow the national curriculum standard. But she said she’s not worried about being reported.
“If the neighbors of my students see us doing the tutoring, they would just come to me and ask if their kids can join us,” Shi said.
Not all tutors have been as fortunate to find new work.
Tianyu Zhao, a 25-year-old college graduate who planned to join TAL Education as a Rubik’s cube tutor in June, said his job offer was revoked two days after the government crackdown. In China, many parents send their kids to cubing tutoring to improve mental reflexes and help them stay focused and determined. Zhao said his department is waiting to get an exemption because the new regulations argue that cubing is not relevant to the school syllabus.
TAL Education, New Oriental Education and Technology Group and Gaotu Techedu are three of the major Chinese education companies that are listed on the New York Stock Exchange. But they were banned from making profits, raising capital or going public from teaching school curriculum as of this summer.
The tutoring crackdown has forced families to step back and rethink how much they depend on tutoring. Mednick said there should be a top-down, deep, introspective look at how Chinese children are being educated.
“This is a wealth-driven education system, where everything is going to be sacrificed for that,” Mednick said.
Bi, the middle school teacher, has been trying to make sure not to push her son too hard and to foster his curiosity. Except for being tutored in English, her son has one piano lesson every Sunday and spends Saturdays playing soccer and hiking with the family.
But other parents are finding other ways for their children to keep up with the competition. Merry Ma said she started her daughter in a weekly ruan lesson, which is a traditional Chinese instrument class. The 36-year-old mother wants her 7-year-old daughter to work on getting extra credits toward her high school entrance exam, or Zhongkao, which will take place in eight years.
“We couldn’t guarantee that she will do well in Zhongkao or Gaokao,” Ma said, also using her English name. “With less tutoring classes, she needs to learn something else, since her peers are doing the same.”