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Chinese President Xi Jinping’s $ 100 billion a year repression of the education industry has caused a crisis for parents who planned to study their children after the holidays.
The new rules have led to a sharp drop in the shares of US-listed Chinese tutoring companies, whose business models have been disrupted. The authorities have decided that teaching for primary and secondary school learners can only be done on a “non-profit” basis and banned such activities during the summer holidays, traditionally the busiest season in the industry.
In anticipation of the stricter regulations, dozens of cities have embarked on a 10-hour day of government-sponsored program that costs less than Rmb60 ($ 9.30), including meals.
The classes are offered by licensed teachers and focus on extracurricular activities, such as painting and badminton, rather than the traditional academic subjects that students must master in order to succeed in the gaokao, China’s grueling university entrance exam.
But many parents avoided government programs and instead turned to expensive private tutors. The camps’ focus on play and entertainment has made them popular with those who want their children to use the holidays more productively.
Li Linhua, a business owner in Beijing, said he gladly paid almost R10 000 to enroll his 11-year-old daughter in two two-week private courses – one in English and the other in creative writing.
“I’m sure my daughter will learn something,” he said. “It’s better than talking to her classmates and playing with water guns in a summer camp.”
More than a dozen schools in four provinces said their cheap summer services were working far below capacity.
“Very few parents are interested in our camp because we are not allowed to provide academic training as they would like,” said the principal of a Hangzhou primary school, who asked not to be identified. Less than 40 of the school’s 1,500 students joined the daycare program in August.
“The government thinks it’s doing a public service,” said a Beijing Education Bureau adviser. “But few students can afford to waste time improving their test scores.”
In a 2018 speech, Xi said the tutor industry should not be ‘profit-driven’ but should focus on a ‘rounded development of students’. He also told a group of educators in March that the industry is a mess and a chronic industry that is very difficult to cure ‘.
Despite such omens, few investors or parents expected the seriousness of this week’s downfall. “None of us expected anything like that,” said a Chinese private investor. “It was much harder than our worst-case scenarios.”
But some parents appreciate the initiative. Helen Li, a marketing manager in Beijing, said her life became easier after she was able to send her nine-year-old son to a public summer camp for only Rmb46 a day. “There is a huge demand for affordable childcare for working parents like me,” she said.
A shortage of teaching staff has contributed to the challenges supported by the government. Most private tutoring companies boast a student-faculty ratio of under 10 to one, but the figure is much higher at public schools, where teachers were reluctant to sacrifice their summer vacation.
“I worked 12 hours a day for an entire semester,” said Zhou Yu, a primary school teacher in Shanghai. “I deserve a break.”
Government officials have taken a root-and-stick approach to persuading teachers to participate. Some affluent cities, such as Hangzhou, offer teachers a Rmb500 subsidy per day, according to local standards a decent level, to supervise day care classes.
Yet, in places where public finances are tight, teachers may lose promotional opportunities if they do not participate in summer programs, despite poor compensation.
“I will withdraw if the government orders me to enter the class,” said Zhang Yue, a teacher in Yichang, in Hubei Province. In that case, “I do not have a choice”.
Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing