Authors: Aces Low Ying Xuan & Chua Jun Jie, James
Research Head: Sasthaa GB (Uday)
In July this year, China imposed harsh measures to crackdown on its US$150 billion (Davidson, 2021) private tutoring industry, banning off-campus and online tutoring for school curriculum subjects on weekends and during holidays. The government also made it clear that all institutions offering tuition on school curriculum are to be registered as non-profit organizations. In this paper, we examine the impacts of the crackdown and its usefulness.
How did tuition become a problem?
The pressure lies not just on the students attending the tuition classes, but also on parents’ ability to send their children to such classes. In urban states, more than 75% of children from grade 1 through 12 attend private tutoring courses (Sheng, 2021). Chinese parents spend an average of USD 18,500 up to USD 46,000 a year on private tuition. For urban families this is about a quarter of their family income and for low-income families, this is 70% of their annual income (Chen, 2018; Qiu & Munroe, 2021). Inequality of access to quality education for students in rural areas is also reflected in the mere 0.3% eligibility into top universities compared to the 2.8% for urban students (The Economist, 2021). Such disparity in quality of education and opportunities has been a cause for the increasing Gini coefficient for China ‒ 38.5%, as one of the most unequal major global economies (Calcea, 2021).
The main reason behind the high demand is to increase students’ chances to excel in ‘gaokao’ and enter one of China’s prestigious universities, Tsinghua and Peking University amongst others. ‘Gaokao’, similar to the American SAT and Singapore’s ‘A’ Levels, is China’s domestic national college entrance examination required for entrance into their universities and is known as one of the toughest exams in the world (Ma, 2019). Entering renowned universities offers a ticket for young people to move up the social ladder (Bloomberg, 2021) and survive in the fast developing environment. Yet, in a 2014 study, it was claimed that the ‘gaokao’ stress was a contributing factor in 93% of high school suicide cases (Heinz, 2018). With the weight of ‘gaokao’ and the culture of academic achievement deeply sowed into the roots of the Chinese society, many have criticised that taking away private education will do little to solve the underlying problem.
Additionally, China is also facing a worsening demographic crisis, with a year-on-year birth rate drop of 15% (Davidson & Farrer, 2021). China’s stressful education and economic situation can be said to have a two-way contribution to the unwillingness to bear children, or to bear more than one child, on top of the rising cost of raising a child (Davidson & Ni, 2021). China’s tuition crackdown also seeks to complement their now 3-child policy (BBC, 2021) by reducing the cost of raising children. Yet, there is strong public consensus that such a reform will do little to reduce the pressure on parents (Davidson, 2021).
A sigh of relief for students?
While the ban effectively frees up students’ time, it barely frees up their stress. In a study regarding mental health problems high school students in Henan, China face, academic stress caused by expectations from parents and teachers, and ‘gaokao’ ranked first (Luo et al., 2020). Without any change to ‘gaokao’, the tuition ban is therefore unlikely to reduce any academic pressure, possibly even exacerbating it should students perform worse than before.
Almost 70% of the 2,400 respondents in a poll on Weibo do not think the ban can help reduce the pressure parents have in ensuring their children’s academic excellence (Davidson, 2021). This suggests another problem – that the culture of ensuring academic excellence is widely viewed by parents as the only way to success and is the priority for their child. Therefore, in order to reduce the pressure students receive from their parents to excel in school, there must first be a shift in parents’ mindset.
How about tuition companies?
The immediate damage to education companies like TAL Education Group and New Oriental Education & Technology Group was the selloff of their stocks. $27 billion was wiped off the stock market (Wang, 2021) and education companies' shares have lost 80-90% of their value as of September 2021. Education companies will have to pivot to non-school syllabus and, undoubtedly, will not be able to recover to the same level of profits school curriculum tutoring brought. The education sector was a large job market for college graduates and clamping down on it will contribute to the rising youth unemployment, harming the Chinese economy (White & Hale, 2021).
Is the crackdown useful?
Unsurprisingly, this restriction is not the first of its kind and South Korea had once pushed out similar restrictions in the 1980s and 1990s, harbouring similar aims of equalising academic opportunities for the less fortunate, and decreasing the cost of raising a child. However, it greatly backfired as it pushed private tuition into the black market, increasing the cost of tuition fees in fear of being caught and punished; more affluent families also chose to send their children overseas to study instead (Kretschmer, 2021). Taking into account the similar culture and importance of education for both China and Korea, such consequences will likely be replicated in China in the coming years.
In an attempt to fix academic stress and inequality, tuition might have become the scapegoat. One loophole of this ban is that private tutoring and one-on-one lessons are still allowed, both of which are currently employed mainly by wealthy families (Bloomberg, 2021), thereby possibly worsening the uneven socio-economic gap. Although the crackdown will help in stopping the “undesirable” tutoring practice and reducing some academic stress, it does little to address the root of student stress. Ultimately, the cause of students’ stress is still the ‘gaokao’, and as long as the society and parents continue to pin the future of students on ‘gaokao’, students will continue to face high levels of pressure and competition.
Conservative regulation of the private tutoring system might instead be the way to go. South Korea’s success in their limited restrictions on private tutoring has seen a decrease in average monthly spending and participation in private tutoring. Restrictions including a cut-off time for private tuition, public learning portals and after-school classes managed by schools (Ng, 2013) could be a more realistic and effective option in toning down the academic-focused culture embedded in China’s society.
To truly “free” students from the unhealthy academic stress and competition, China must overhaul its education system and reduce the importance of ‘gaokao’. Yet, given the extreme pace of development and growth, the continuous need to identify and hone new generations of talents makes it unlikely for China to get rid of ‘gaokao’, making vocational education a more practical path for China to explore. There have been suggestions for the government to promote alternative education pathways, especially for youths from lower socio-economic regions of China, including enrolment in vocational education, apprenticeships, and other skills development (Davidson, 2021). In this aspect, China can perhaps take a leaf from Singapore who offers Junior College – equivalent to high school, polytechnic, and Institute of Technical Education (ITE) – vocational education for less-academically-inclined students from an earlier age of 16. Reducing subject contents that require “cramming” and focusing more on intellectual and critical thinking will help in developing students more holistically. While this method will not be able to reduce the unequal gap between urban and rural regions, it will surely free up resources and allow the better development of China’s youths.
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