Chinese parents demand private education reform
Published: Jun 05, 2016 06:33 PM

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Kuno Method (known as Hundred Flowers in China), a Japanese-owned "consulting agency" with branches in Shanghai, was ordered to suspend its operations by local educational authorities. The company, which was hugely popular with Chinese parents of children aged 3-6, was known for its high success rate of placing students in elite local schools.

Demand for Kuno's limited-seating extracurricular classes resulted in long queues of parents camping overnight days before summer enrollment started on May 24. Impatient parents began to quarrel and a fight between two combative fathers resulted in police being called. After investigating, officials realized that Kuno has been operating illegally in China for the past 10 years!

The problem was that instead of being registered as a training school, Kuno billed itself as a "consulting company," which landed itself in hot water with authorities, who have rules about how schools can brand themselves. According to media, however, the fault wasn't only Kuno's but also that of Shanghai's educational and administrative bureaus, both who blamed the other for not having oversight of foreign educational businesses.

This whole mess reminded me of my own experience running a small training school back in my hometown 10 years ago. I wanted to open a foreign language training center to capitalize on China's then-growing demand for English, so I set out to have my own company registered with the local educational authority.

Even with the advice of a government official I was friends with, it was nonetheless difficult to obtain proper licenses and educational certificates. I recall spending no small amount of time filling out endless forms and applying for numerous certificates to ensure my language ability and academic, professional and personal background. But after all that red tape was done, the worst was still ahead of us.

Our strongest selling point was that we could help Zhejiang-based students learn from Shanghai-level English coaches. Our teachers - my employees - were all experienced instructors from Shanghai's prestigious universities. We specialized in preparing students for the English portion of the dreaded zhongkao and gaokao (China's national high school and college entrance exams) and, eventually, my little schoolhouse became a well-regarded brand among local students and parents.

Our downfall was due to local competitors who, most without the proper license (as Kuno) and envious of our grassroots success, began utilizing illegal means to claim an advantage over us. Some started paying a commission to certain public school teachers to introduce their students to them. They also hired some public school teachers to moonlight for them, which is not allowed in China.

As you can guess, we received no help from local officials or educational authorities, who might have been paid a bribe by our competitors to turn a blind eye to their illicit marketing methods. To add injury to insult, corrupt authorities from the local fire, health, public security, tax, industrial and commercial bureaus soon began sniffing around my business hinting for bribes to "help" us stay in operation.

Looking back, I shouldn't have been so proud about not paying off those dirty bureaucrats. Young as I was, I sincerely believed that a legitimate license was my shield against governmental graft.

Finally, instead of succumbing to all those scheming snakes, I chose to close down my school. It had been a local market leader and I managed to save a nice bit of money from our revenue stream, which allowed me to move back to Shanghai with my family and resume my career in journalism. It was an interesting experience, though dealing with corrupt cadres is not something any business person should have to endure.

As a former educator and a mother of a grade-nine daughter, Kuno Method's case is another example that there needs to be more transparency in China's private education sector. A governmental agency specifically dedicated to education-for-profit businesses, along with a more streamlined licensing process, would benefit legitimate training centers and their paying customers, ensuring that the rights of business owners as well as parents and students are upheld.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.