Tutoring crackdown to extend to university entrance exam prep

China has launched a major crackdown on private tutoring of children in compulsory schooling until age 15 as part of a bid to rein in burgeoning private edtech companies. But now Ministry of Education advisors say strict controls will also be brought in for the age group preparing for the university entrance examination, the gaokao, which could have a knock-on effect on students planning to study abroad.

If regulations are too harsh, then many more parents will shift children to the ‘international track’ for a broader education and to prepare for university education overseas, avoiding the high stakes gaokao altogether, according to experts.

The school tutoring crackdown

In a major and wide-ranging overhaul of the out-of-school private tutoring and extra-curricular learning sector, the State Council and the Communist Party’s Central Committee jointly issued a set of rules at the end of July to confine tutoring only to subjects that are taught in primary and middle schools.

Under the regulation, private tutoring companies will be forced to become non-profit and online platforms will have to be registered with the authorities.

The education ministry also banned tutoring platforms from hiring foreign teachers outside China to teach Chinese students. Additional regulations provide for local authorities to ban holiday and weekend tutoring and to impose a moratorium on new tuition centres.

Local governments are expected to issue implementation plans to “effectively reduce” the excessive homework and after-school tutoring burden on students within one year, and to achieve “significant results” within three years, according to the State Council.

The crackdown since July has been highly disruptive for China’s tutoring industry, estimated to be worth US$70 billion, with huge companies listed on the United States, Hong Kong and Chinese stock exchanges. Prestigious institutions such as Peking University and Tsinghua University in Beijing had also invested in tutoring start-ups.

Stock prices plunged almost as soon as the new policy was announced, while smaller companies have gone to the wall or are struggling to keep their heads above water as anxious parents demand refunds.

Parents have also been sent into a panic over how to continue supporting their children’s education in a hugely competitive education environment. Many are willing to take on the major financial burden of private classes, seeing them as essential to getting children into the best universities.

Extension of the current policy

The government has continued to tighten up on many of the loopholes sought by parents to continue tutoring classes, with more than 30 additional regulations issued by the authorities since the initial 24 July document, and more expected in the coming weeks.

This is according to Zhang Wei, a professor at East China Normal University’s Institute of Curriculum and Instruction, who has advised the education ministry on its new tutoring policy.

Notably, high school students preparing for the gaokao will be subject to new regulations on out-of-school tutoring in the coming weeks, she said.

“It will be an extension to the current policy, which has only been mentioned very vaguely in one sentence in the July policy,” said Zhang, who has widely researched out-of-school tutoring in China.

She pointed to a line in the document that says the management of after-school tutoring for high school students “shall be implemented in accordance with the relevant provisions of this regulatory policy”.

The main thrust of the crackdown is that academic tutoring cannot be for profit “and this also applies to the high school level, but hasn’t been released yet”, she told University World News.

High school education after the age of 15 is non-compulsory in China.

Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the Shanghai-based 21st Century Education Research Institute, pointed out that this had resulted in confusion because decisions regarding non-compulsory education have traditionally been left up to parents and students, while the government exerts more authority over compulsory education.

Zhang Wei of East China Normal University noted that exemptions for high school and gaokao preparation years were discussed within the ministry.

“But they decided that if they gave more space for high school-level [tutoring], then the [financial] capital would just rush there. So they have decided they’re not going to allow any academic tutoring companies to be for-profit.”

The tutoring sector

Around 500,000 online tutoring companies are registered with the government, according to Zhang, who notes that there are many more unregistered companies.

“Which was partly why this July policy was so harsh. The [government] does not want a whole industry of a lot of big tutoring companies creating a parallel education system.” Government felt threatened that tutoring was “growing bigger than the school system”.

President Xi Jinping has long denounced the after-school tutoring sector as disruptive, burdensome and in need of regulation.

The government was already tightening regulations with offline tutoring particularly, with new regulations in 2018 “gradually getting on the right track and the government felt that it was under control”, said Zhang. But with COVID-19 offline tutoring had to switch online.

“More importantly a lot of [financial] capital, tech companies, big tech and venture investors rushed into the market to grab the chance, because there was huge demand. And it expanded very quickly causing a lot of problems.”

Many companies did not have time to prepare. They poached tutors. “They even stole curriculum and classes from other tutoring centres or from online platforms,” Zhang said.

And because they invested millions in advertising to get customers, “they wanted to get some products as soon as possible. There were huge disparities among products. Overall, the gaokao preparation [industry] is not as huge as the compulsory education years,” she noted.

Although tutoring for high school students seems to be ongoing for now, many have already cut back in anticipation of what is to come, according to Zhang.

Students going abroad

She noted that extending the policy to high school will be important. “A lot of parents feel that if this policy is going to cause preparing kids for the best universities in China to be randomised, they will just go on the international track to send their children to Ivy League universities.”

Tutoring for students who want to go abroad, which includes SATS and other overseas exams, is not currently restricted by the July policy. “But if a student is not on the international track and a tutoring company provides classes in English and pretends it is for studying abroad, then that is violating regulations,” Zhang explained.

Some issues relating to older age groups are still being discussed within the ministry, such as extending the July ban on teachers located in foreign countries providing tutoring online. “That would be a problem for high school level.”

And restrictions on time could be brought in. “What matters to the tutoring companies most is the time constraints that might be imposed, as the schedule for students in the gaokao preparation years is already very packed,” Zhang said, explaining that there was less room for manoeuvre to provide for that age group.

South Korea’s experience

But a crackdown on tutoring, particularly when supplementary out-of-school classes are as widespread as they are in countries in East and Southeast Asia, can have other consequences.

“The main one is that tutoring goes underground, [and] the prices go up. And a large part of it continues anyway. Then they gradually have to relax it,” said Mark Bray, a professor in the Centre for International Research in Supplementary Tutoring at East China Normal University in Shanghai and an expert on tutoring and supplementary education globally.

He pointed to South Korea as an example that was also presented to Chinese Ministry of Education officials during consultations. Private tutoring outside school was banned in South Korea in the 1980s, with another attempt to crack down in 1998, until a court ruled in 2008 that it was unconstitutional to tell a parent they could not spend money on their child’s education.

“Even before [2008] but especially thereafter, what the Korean government is trying to do is make schooling attractive, then parents don’t have to pay for shadow schooling,” Bray told University World News.

Now the Korean out-of-school tutoring or shadow schooling industry is three times larger than in 1980 when the government was trying to ban it, according to Bray, who is also UNESCO chair in comparative education at Hong Kong University. “My view is, the underlying factors in Korea are still the same: it’s social competition.”

“The [Chinese] government is showing more persistence than might have been predicted, so this is not just a short-term splash. But it wasn’t in Korea either.” Nonetheless, he believes that even if private capital comes back into the tutoring industry in China “it won’t be at the same level”.

According to Zhang: “The problem in China is, we are in a period of accelerated development, which means social stratification is deepening. And the middle-class in particular is feeling very insecure. In this kind of environment, the heated competition wouldn’t just disappear because they cracked down.”

Zhang pointed out that whereas around 80% of families use private tutoring in South Korea, it is still only 15% in China – although in terms of numbers it is bigger than in Korea.

David Yi, CEO of Riiid Labs in Silicon Valley, California – part of Riiid in South Korea, an education start-up – told University World News shortly after the July document came out that he believed the effects of the Chinese crackdown would be temporary.

“We saw the exact same thing happen in Korea, in an era when Korea was trying to close the wealth gap and said everything should be public education, get rid of all private education.”

Based on the Korean experience, Yi said, “If this continues and it is not popular, people in China are going to find other ways to get around it. Even the one-child policy has disappeared in China, so it can change.”

Getting around the restrictions

Zhang said that people in urban areas were most likely to pay for tutoring. “Families who are resisting such policies would even risk going underground to get tutoring, and those parents who clap for the policy are those who can’t have tutoring in the first place.”

Some families could hire the best tutors secretly in a venue they find and organise it themselves, maybe with two or three children secretly at home, or a student doing it over Skype, she said. “I can’t see these kinds of informal practice going away.”

“Some companies would organise a class of students to watch recorded videos, then they would say we’re just showing them videos. And the families pay for that.”

“We’ll see a shrinking of the registered formal market, but expansion of the informal market. The government also knows it and released a regulation document to tackle it,” Zhang said, adding that she doubted it would succeed.

Already some local governments are encouraging residents to report any in-person tutorial services being offered for profit. For example, in the Chongchuan district of Nantong in Jiangsu province, the authorities issued an official statement saying whistle-blowers would be rewarded with CNY200 (US$31).

“We try to alert the national government that harsh measures would kill a lot of companies. And would have a lot of risks for social stability,” Zhang said, also noting the loss of jobs as companies shut down and that some parents are unable to get refunds or get only partial refunds.

“Parents could become really, really angry. At any moment if there's some kind of incident, this could expand quickly.”