Bad news, Beijing kids: Tutoring is back, and it’s free for everybody

Society & Culture

Following government moves aimed at ending inequality in education, the Beijing government is trying to make sure the children of the rich don't get ahead with private lessons by giving away after-school tutoring classes for free.

Oriental Image via Reuters Connect

https://art19.com/shows/china-stories/episodes/c0007091-5d06-4108-aa6e-c58ccc1d6480

When China sent a wrecking ball through its $120 billion a year tutoring industry in July, barring for-profit companies from tutoring in core curriculum subjects, many parents and education experts were skeptical about the reform. The affluent, they argued, would continue to hire expensive private tutors for their children, making the state education system even more competitive and ultimately exacerbating inequalities in society. 

Five months later, it seems a solution might be on the horizon, and the local government of Beijing is ready to test it out on students across the city as early as this month.

The possible fix is outlined in a directive (in Chinese) issued recently by the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education, the local government body that manages all schools in the capital. In the document, the commission announces a plan to build an online tutoring platform, where celebrity teachers in local primary and middle schools can provide tutoring services in various forms, including one-on-one teaching, live-streaming classrooms, and pre-recorded videos.

Although participation is not mandatory for teachers, those who join the platform are entitled to financial benefits based on their performance. The compensation, which is calculated each semester and maximizes at 50,000 yuan ($7,880), is determined by several factors, including evaluations from students and the number of classes taught. 

The biggest draw of the platform is that it’s completely free to use. The project is solely funded by the Beijing government, which plans to pay teachers at public schools to fill the void left by tutors hired by private companies. The general principle of the initiative is also in line with the “double reduction” policy (双减政策), the wide-ranging overhaul announced by China’s education authorities in the summer to ease academic pressure on students and reduce after-school tutoring. To ensure that the platform won’t keep students up late at night or occupy their weekends, the service is only available from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays, and each one-on-one sessions and group classes are limited to 30 minutes.

The idea is not entirely new. Rather, it’s an upgraded version of an old project launched by the Beijing government in 2016. Designed to solve the uneven distribution of educational resources in the city, the previous version of the platform was only accessible to schoolchildren in nine districts, most of which are on the outskirts of Beijing, where the quality of teachers is lacking in comparison to good school districts like Haidian and Xicheng. 

The past few months have been a nightmare for China’s tutoring sector. In July, after months of rumors and ominous signs, China launched an aggressive campaign to rein in private education companies, blaming them for fueling an unhealthy educational rat race. Since then, a slew of stringent regulations have come into effect, including rules outlawing firms from making profits by teaching the school curriculum, raising capital, or going public.

Although the crackdown on private educational companies is aimed at making life easier for Chinese students and restoring fairness in education, it has received a tepid reception from many Chinese parents, who worry that without adjusting demand, simply suppressing supply will only further exacerbate the uneven distribution of educational resources between the rich and the poor. 

Their concerns seem to be justified. Despite the crackdown, wealthy parents are still seeking new ways to give their children an edge in the cutthroat education system. Instead of joining traditional foreign language classes, some of the wealthy have signed their kids up for non-core curriculum subjects like art and theater, which are taught in English. A slew of unlicensed companies and instructors in the tutoring industry have moved to operate under the radar, forming an underground market where tutors are advertised as “providers of housekeeping and childcare services” or “professional nannies.” 

By launching its own tutoring service, the Beijing government is hoping to cut demand for costly private tutoring and make high-quality education accessible to everyone. But its good intentions have been lost on many internet users, who say they are confused by the conflicting messages surrounding the “double reduction” policy and the hypocrisy of the government. 

“So they killed the entire private education industry just to make sure that only teachers at public schools can make money from tutoring? What is going on here?” a Weibo user commented (in Chinese).