Tightened regulation necessary for China’s off-campus industry
Published: Jul 27, 2021 10:26 PM
Students run in the campus on their first day of the new semester at a primary school in southwest China's Chongqing, March 1, 2021. Students returned to school for the spring semester on Monday in many parts of China amid coordinated epidemic control efforts.(Photo: Xinhua)

Photo: Xinhua

Recent "shock" announcements that China will regulate the "off-campus" industry come as no surprise to anyone in the industry. They are long overdue and a very positive development for China, Chinese students and their parents.

Shares on publicly listed companies have plunged with some recording losses of between 50 and 70 percent of their value. However, anyone who lost money in these recent drops has only themselves to blame. 

It's no shock; in the third quarter of 2019, before there was a COVID-19 spike in the number of online educators, that particular industry received over 15,000 complaints, 1200 private schools closed down, most leaving both teachers without payment and students without the services they paid for. There were rumblings a long time ago that something needed to be done. One thing is obvious: China's "after school education system" is broken and needs fixing. 

As always there are two ways to look at developments in China, the positive way and the Western Mainstream Media (WMSM) way.

An Al-Jazeera headline reads: "As China cracks down on online education, it wrecks IPO prospects." Reuters went a step further and actually quoted Xinhua, one of China's leading news outlets, in their headline reading: "China confirms ban on for-profit tutoring in core school subjects - Xinhua"

However, in quoting Xinhua's headlines, the Reuters editorial team failed to point out that the actual headlines they were quoting are very different from the headline they've created:  in English, Xinhua had several articles with varying headlines all of which were positive. Two of the headlines were: "farewell to off-campus tutoring, schools to give students happier summer break"; and "China regulates off-campus tutoring to ease burden on students." 

Once again, WMSM manipulates headlines to reflect a sinister side to a positive action. Not only is the burden on students too great, the burden on their parents is incredible, the desire to see your only child do well and the pressure in a system as crowded as China's education system creates very serious competition for a small number of top university places.

There are good reasons why this was all necessary. For a long time, the industry has been poorly regulated. Despite huge increases in the standard of living throughout the country, China is still going through a process of regulatory reform and there are several aspects of society still in need of change; education is definitely one of them.

Despite recent tightening of the regulations, there are still places where unqualified, non-native English speakers are teaching English. Consequently, even now, there are many organizations, usually smaller, less obvious, often poorly managed and in lower-tiered cities, where foreign teachers are not only unqualified to teach English, they often don't even speak it well. This is a problem peculiar to the English language industry.

As for many online programs, many of them operated from outside China, a few operated in places like the US, Thailand and the Philippines. Getting a job as an English teacher is too easy: "work from home with hours to suit you" are familiar words in online advertising. They pay up to $16 for people who are highly qualified (at least a Master degree to get this much) and as little as $12 for unqualified - I know this because I've been approached by them, even in recent months. They go on to charge students as much as $80-100 a lesson.

Several of these have policies of collecting huge fees up front then failing to deliver. The most obvious are the companies offering International English Language Testing System (IELTS) training. Something I know a lot about as I was an IELTS teacher as well as an examiner in China. 

I have many examples of students making payments, around 20,000 yuan ($3,075), sometimes as much as 50,000 yuan to be trained for IELTS (the city in which these events occurred has a median monthly salary of 21,000 yuan) and then being inadequately trained and unable to achieve the score they need - the British Council (BC) which owns the rights to conduct the test inside of China may love them. Each year before the COVID-19 epidemic, more than 700,000 students took this test which costs 2,000 yuan and statistic show that 83 percent of them failed to reach a suitable target to get them into the institution they planned to go - their solution is to keep taking the test, adding more profit to BC's bottom line, until they finally reach their target. Many of them take 3 or 4 tests, I've known kids to take 10 tests and still fail to achieve. However, after just a few hours of private tutoring with someone qualified and experienced enough to guide them through the examiner's requirements they can make it first time.

Some organizations conduct massive online training events, students pay a small fee, to listen to a one-hour lecture given by an "expert". The student numbers on such an event can be as many as 2,000. There's 100,000 yuan in that lecture with minimal costs.

It is organizations such as these which the government wishes to control. Organizations which prey on the anxieties of parents and because they are large, are believed to be good. Organizations with massive profit lines based on huge investments made by parents. Organizations which are springing up in every town and city throughout China, collecting huge fees and disappearing overnight and organizations outside of China which can't be controlled.

I am very happy there will be what WMSM calls "clampdowns, crackdowns and bans" because, as China's media reports, the system will be fairer to the parents and easier for the students. 

The author is a retired teacher and teacher trainer and examiner in China with experience in the "after School" education field.