New law set to affect foreign university applications

As China last week passed a law banning some private for-profit schools that cater to middle-school children, there is some concern that this could affect the quality and preparedness of Chinese students applying to universities in Western countries, including the United Kingdom, United States, Canada and Australia.

The Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress – equivalent to parliament – passed an amendment to the law on private education last Monday at the behest of the Education Ministry, official media reported.

From the September 2017 academic year, only non-profit private middle schools would be permitted. Official sources said the aim was to block schools from profiting from tuition fees for children eligible to receive the country's nine years of compulsory education.

After massive growth in recent years, and burgeoning fees at for-profit schools teaching a bilingual or foreign curriculum, many may have to close or restructure.

Many cater to a huge demand from families aiming to apply to universities in the West.

While the amended law does not affect international schools that enrol only foreign nationals, or private schools offering two-year qualifications leading to post-16 overseas qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate or IB diploma and British A-Level examinations, it will have an impact on international curriculum and joint-venture private schools which enrol mainly Chinese students aiming to study abroad.

International school teachers say it will also affect the pipeline of well-prepared students applying to permitted post-16 high schools, and have a knock-on effect on the quality of applications to foreign universities.

The amendment also comes as the government has been tightening the rules on the teaching of compulsory subjects such as Chinese morality and law in international middle schools.

In the past the Chinese government encouraged ‘experimental schools’, as many bilingual and international schools are regarded, as they were seen as helping modernise teaching and learning.

But under President Xi Jingping’s leadership, the fear within the Communist Party is that the school system and young pupils are being damaged by the influence of Western-style education that moves away from the government-sanctioned curriculum.

Chinese values

After imposing stricter rules on the teaching of Chinese values and ideology in universities, the Chinese government has been concerned about younger Chinese students not being taught compulsory Chinese subjects.

They have also launched a drive to have the Chinese university entrance exam, the gaokao, recognised abroad to stem the numbers opting for Western school-leaving qualifications.

The state-run Xinhua News Agency published a commentary on 13 October criticising some international schools for poor oversight of the curriculum and of violating Chinese law and government regulations by failing to include these subjects.

Officials said the textbooks used by such schools should be approved not only by the schools but also the education bureaux “to prevent questionable content”, official media reported.

Some parents with children in international and bilingual schools took to social media to voice concerns that increasing the time spent on the Chinese courses would reduce the time for other courses that give their children a more all-round education than what is available in public schools.

Shanghai, which has a large number of international curriculum and joint-venture international schools, had already attempted to clarify the rules last month.

Shanghai education officials told administrators at international schools and public schools with international units they would have to comply with government rules on “national education” or China-specific subjects such as Chinese history, constitution, and morals.

“The regulation has been in place for some time, but now they are really enforcing it, so that up until grade 9 [age 15], children have to follow the Chinese curriculum,” said Anne Keeling, a spokesperson for the International Schools Consultancy based in Oxford, England.

“Most of the international schools that we have feedback from are already working within the Chinese regulations to deliver the best international education within the restrictions set by the Chinese government.”

But Keeling admitted it will have an impact on international programmes such as the international version of the British middle-school qualification for 14-16 year olds, the IGCSE, which was becoming increasingly popular.


Several international school teachers in China said the English language skills and preparedness of Chinese applicants to foreign universities had improved substantially in recent years, in part due to an earlier start with bilingual education and international-style curricula at such schools before the ‘crunch’ years of preparing for the IB or A-Levels at age 16-18.

According to the Chinese Ministry of Education, more than 11% of junior middle-school pupils studied at private schools last year. In 2005, it was 6%.

Campbell Douglas, head of Dulwich College International High School, Zhuhai, a British-curriculum international school in Southern China which takes pupils aged 15-19, said it was important for Chinese pupils to start learning in English earlier.

“Improving their English from that point [age 15] onwards is very difficult,” he told University World News earlier this year.

“It is not that difficult to get a Chinese student into a university overseas, but for them to be successful when they are there is hard,” he said, referring to a different learning culture at Western universities.

“It’s obviously going to help them the sooner children can start learning in English so that they are very competent in the language by the time they get to university. If they are starting to develop a Western style of learning, that will also help,” said Keeling.

Parents have become reluctant to send their single child abroad before university. “There have been many reports of children going abroad at an early age to be prepared for Western learning… they really struggle. They can be really unhappy,” she added.

More than 12 million students attend around 10,000 private primary and middle schools, according to the Education Ministry data released in 2015. Of these, some 256 are international curriculum or international schools, with many more planned to open, particularly in Southern China.

There is also growing public concern over what is seen as growing inequality between public school students and those who can afford expensive international and bilingual programmes. Private schools are also used by the children of migrant workers who fail to get a residence permit under China’s strict rules, which would allow their children to be educated in the public education system.

Mimi Leung in Hong Kong contributed to this article