The past two years have not been the easiest for those of us who have worked in China’s growing international education sector.
Western attitudes towards China have inevitably changed following the events in Hong Kong, as United Nations reports of human rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang leaked and question marks over the origins of the global pandemic have surfaced.
Moreover, the Chinese government’s reaction to the trade wars – opening the door to important internal reforms, especially against private companies and entrepreneurs – has gradually made life for the international community in China more difficult.
As part of these reforms in 2021, there appears to have been a concerted campaign by the government to reverse trends that had emerged in China’s education sector.
This has already had a significant impact on the international school community.
What once seemed like a period of unstoppable expansion for British schools in China now seems to be coming to an end – and yet a new era awaits us.
Big changes for UK international schools in China
So what has changed and why?
Perhaps the most notable change came in July last year when the Chinese government unveiled the double discount regulations, which halted after-school tutoring services and also controlled the extent homework imposed on Chinese students.
Then came the ban on the use of international curricula and foreign textbooks which made it virtually impossible to teach the kind of East/West blended curriculum that had become increasingly common.
While primarily seeking to limit profits in the private school sector, the Chinese Communist Party also viewed these developing trends as socially damaging.
Children’s mental health suffered from a mountain of homework and extracurricular activities, and soaring costs of education had demographic implications as parenthood became prohibitively expensive, reducing the birth rate.
But also, politically, the private school juggernaut had resulted in the opening of nearly 1,000 at least partly English-speaking schools in China, spreading Western values and attracting the influential upper middle class.
This is obviously a real challenge for the Chinese government.
Last year’s regulations came on the heels of controls enacted since 2017 that have made educational activity in China much less of a garden of opportunity than it was at the turn of the century.
Profit extraction from schools was curtailed, a lottery process to control admission to private schools was enforced, and visas and invitation letters for staff and their families were restricted.
The final nail in the coffin was rather euphemistically named the “Private Education Promotion Act”, unveiled in September, which capped enrollment in private schools at no more than 5% of the student body. Chinese at the compulsory stage (6 years -15).
These reforms will halt the expansion of the domestic private sector as the numbers are already well above the 7% figure in the UK.
According to China’s Ministry of Education, private schools currently make up 10.8% of the entire cohort, and in some areas like Shanghai and Shenzhen, more than 20%.
This measure was taken by the Chinese Communist Party in an attempt to remedy the elitism fostered by the rise of private education, which does not fit easily into a communist framework.
Private schools create and then perpetuate inequalities.
All of this means that new licenses to open schools are like gold dust and many of those private schools that currently follow international curricula are coming back under state control, closing, or having to completely readjust their approach to the curriculum. .
Therefore, for many, the way forward has suddenly become rather bleak.
According to Beijing-based Venture Education, 14 UK schools have opened in China in 2020 with another 40 planned.
The pandemic and government reforms have, however, stalled these international schools, either in their early stages or in their quest to enter the market. There were several notable casualties, Westminster being probably the most notable.
In response, many UK schools considering opening in China have sought opportunities in less complicated jurisdictions: Rugby and Harrow are opening in Japan next year, and Shrewsbury in Cambodia the following year, for example.
On top of all this, for those who remain committed to the market, the Chinese authorities have maintained since the start of the pandemic strict controls on entering and leaving the country, as well as on internal travel.
Flights are cancelled, travel restrictions abound. Re-entry to China for those who manage to get out has become so risky that most teachers have chosen to stay in China for fear of losing their jobs if they are unable to enter or face long stays. in quarantine.
Many staff members have not seen their families in the West for over two years, so it is no big surprise that in 2022 many international teachers will not renew their contracts and leave.
The challenge of recruiting teachers
Most of my former school principal colleagues working in schools across China face retention and recruitment challenges.
Increasingly, the recruitment process is retraining international staff remaining in China.
This, of course, creates a pecking order that means new schools and those with lesser reputations struggle to fill teaching vacancies.
The shortage of Western teachers is accelerating what was already a growing trend of localizing international staff, and more of the more than 1,000 international curriculum schools in China will seek to use Chinese bilinguals, many of whom have just returned from living or to study abroad, to deliver their curriculum.
This is by no means a bad thing. In fact, it may well serve as the next step in altering what had previously been a rather neo-paternal intervention in Chinese education by the Western teaching community.
The sector will now be forced to find a better balance and become more self-sufficient under the controls established by the party.
However, despite teacher shortages and restrictive legislation, the market for quality, internationally oriented education in China will not disappear.
China continues to develop economically. its “belt and road” initiative will attract more and more Chinese to work abroad. Chinese investments and global purchasing means that Chinese investors and workers need a global understanding and high levels of English skills.
British and American universities will continue to be the aspiration of many Chinese families, and so international qualifications will not disappear from the agenda despite the government’s efforts to reaffirm China’s national curriculum.
So we are seeing a realignment of international education in China. Many international teachers will seek positions in other parts of Asia, the Middle East or even Europe.
However, there will likely not be enough jobs for all of these teachers, and some may reluctantly stay in China and adapt to the changing situation.
These changes will probably continue for a few more years, but, as always in China, the implementation of the reforms will vary from one locality to another.
Local demand, especially for the kind of international skills that developing China still needs overseas, will ensure a future for international education.
China has moved from a developing economy under Mao to an investment-driven powerhouse under Deng, and it is now evolving into a consumer-driven economy focused on the domestic audience under Xi.
This will remain fertile ground for the right kind of international education.
China’s growing middle class offers a huge opportunity. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the United States, China’s middle class has grown from 3% of China’s population in 2000 to just over half, or some 707 million people, in 2018.
Whether internationally oriented schools collaborate with the government or remain independent, the demand for places will remain.
Much of this demand will be in the Greater Bay Area, home to nearly 90 million people and which, particularly in Shenzhen, has already seen a huge expansion in international education.
Recently, the Guangzhou authorities announced ambitious plans that include the creation of 50 internationally oriented schools.
UK schools, like Gordonstoun, are looking to be among them, proving that the demand – and the desire to meet that demand – is not waning.
As the impact of the restrictive legislation subsides – and it will take time – the green shoots of international education should re-emerge on the East Coast in Shanghai and Beijing, and slowly but surely in the rest from China.
It’s time to innovate
The goose that laid the golden eggs that produced the explosion of international bilinguals may not return with the extraordinary vitality we have seen before, but it will reassert itself: international education with Chinese characteristics.
In these schools, many teachers will be returning Chinese, products of the latest generation of foreign students who are now returning to China to seek work.
Alongside these Chinese returnees will be high-performing and effective international educationists with sound knowledge of the curriculum and a commitment to seeing education in China grow.
Change is always painful. The pandemic has given a new face to education in China.
But British education – as it has done so many times before – will no doubt adapt to the changing scene.
David Mansfield has served as Principal of Dulwich College in Beijing and Dean of the Buckingham International School of Education. He is also a former executive director of the YK Pao school in Shanghai, for which he is a senior advisor.