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2021-11-01 11:24:53

Xu Lingling thought her future was settled. She was working as an English tutor for the Chinese education giant New Oriental in the eastern city of Wenzhou, teaching junior high schoolers on evenings and weekends.

It was a draining job, but the 25-year-old loved it. It was well-paid, engaging, and seemed as stable as they come. New Oriental — a U.S.-listed firm with a celebrity founder and a billion-dollar valuation — was a leading player in a booming industry. Xu expected to stay there for years.

Then, in July, everything fell apart.

The Chinese government launched a severe clampdown on private tutoring, blaming the industry for fueling an unhealthy educational rat race. Academic classes on weekends and holidays were banned. Education firms were prevented from opening new centers or raising capital. From January 2022, all for-profit academic tutoring would be outlawed.

The company failed to show me the least respect, let alone care.

The new rules quickly sent the New Oriental franchise where Xu worked into a death spiral. Xu’s teaching hours were slashed from 11 sessions per week to just three. Nearly half the school’s 60 English teachers left the company. Others had their salaries cut to just 2,300 yuan ($360) per month.

Finally, on Sept. 29, the moment Xu had been dreading arrived. Her manager called her into her office and tersely informed her she’d been fired. She now finds herself unemployed amid a tough job market, her career plans in tatters.

“These days, I feel sad every time I see the New Oriental logo,” Xu tells Sixth Tone. “The company failed to show me the least respect, let alone care.”

Xu is among the millions of people whose lives have been upended by China’s move to reshape the nation’s education system, a campaign known as the “double reduction” policy.

The policy has introduced sweeping reforms to achieve two main goals: cutting the amount of homework and after-school tuition students receive. The government argues this is necessary to save the nation’s children from burnout, reduce inequality, and prevent parents feeling obliged to spend eye-watering sums on private classes. Official surveys suggest the policy has broad public support.

But the campaign is also causing massive disruption. On the eve of the clampdown, China’s tutoring sector was worth a staggering 2 trillion yuan and employed around 10 million people. Now, the industry is undergoing a messy and painful collapse — with ordinary families and workers the collateral damage.

As company after company has shut down, teachers have been abruptly dismissed and parents have lost billions of yuan in prepaid tuition fees. Meanwhile, a network of unlicensed teaching centers has emerged to plug the gap — triggering a fresh wave of crackdowns.

Two women stand outside a closed New Oriental tutoring center in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Oct. 26, 2021. Chen Dongqiu/People Visual

Two women stand outside a closed New Oriental tutoring center in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Oct. 26, 2021. Chen Dongqiu/People Visual

Growing fallout

Facing a steep drop in earnings, education companies began making deep cuts to their head counts soon after the new tutoring restrictions were announced. Domestic media estimated that hundreds of thousands of people in the industry lost their jobs in early August.

Like Xu, many of those laid off were young graduates, a group that already faces a grim employment situation in China. Jobs platform Zhilian Zhaopin reported a spike in applications from degree-holders aged 25 or under in recent months.

In October alone, several big-name companies — including U.S.-listed firms Zhangmen and OneSmart — closed down operations almost overnight, to the shock of employees and clients.

The shutdowns have sparked fury among parents. Many had paid the companies the equivalent of thousands of dollars to prebook classes for their children — in some cases just days before the firms folded.

Thousands of people showed up outside OneSmart facilities across China in early October, demanding their money back. Thousands more have joined chat groups on social platforms WeChat and QQ, where affected parents are trying to coordinate action to lobby for compensation.

Xu Danfeng, a Shanghai-based mother, is one of them. She had initially pulled her son out of academic tutoring classes after hearing about the “double reduction” policy. 

But OneSmart’s sales staff repeatedly promised her one-on-one classes wouldn’t be affected, and so in September, Xu paid the company nearly 60,000 yuan to prebook a block of around 100 Chinese classes. Her son attended just three of them before the company folded. 

I wish the authorities would punish the company ... It deliberately cheated us.

“I know it’s almost hopeless trying to get my money back, but I wish the authorities would punish the company,” says Xu, who isn’t related to Xu Lingling. “It deliberately cheated us.”

Meng Weiying, another victim who lives in Shanghai, paid nearly 200,000 yuan to the same tutoring firm in August. Again, the company had convinced her to pay by promising her that the tutoring ban didn’t apply to one-on-one tutoring. It went out of business weeks later.

“As a parent of a ninth-grader, we’re anxious to find good-quality tutoring services — they’ve just taken advantage of that,” says Meng. “It’s such an evil scam.”

On an online shared document, hundreds more parents have detailed the prepaid tuition fees they have lost during the wave of corporate collapses. The amounts range from tens of thousands of yuan to well over 1 million.

Yet Xu Danfeng stresses that most of the victims are ordinary families that have made sacrifices, rather than the wealthy. “We’re not rich families,” she says. “We’re just parents who are willing to spend all we have on our kids’ education.”

Tutoring company staff also say they have been treated unfairly. At New Oriental, Xu Lingling says managers pushed her to sign a termination agreement quickly after her dismissal. She did as she was told, only to realize later she would be paid less than one-third of the compensation employees typically receive in China.

The training school has used various other tactics to get rid of staff cheaply, Xu says. Some tutors resigned after their wages were drastically cut. Managers also introduced stricter office rules that allowed them to fire employees for minor infractions — such as being late a handful of times a year — with minimal compensation. 

Xu has joined a group of former colleagues to pressure the company to treat employees more fairly, but these efforts have proved futile so far. “The company has shut down the channels for any further conversations,” she says.

Parents apply for refunds at a tutoring center in Beijing, Sept. 2, 2021. People Visual

Parents apply for refunds at a tutoring center in Beijing, Sept. 2, 2021. People Visual

Uneasy transition

The next few months promise to bring a fresh wave of uncertainty as the remnants of the industry undergoes an unprecedented transformation. The government has ordered all academic tutoring companies to exit the sector or transform into non-profits before the end of the year — a deadline that’s now looming.

Xiao Mei — the owner of two extracurricular training schools in the southern Guangdong province — is among the many business owners trying to navigate this process. She has decided to re-register the company as a non-profit, so she can continue serving her clients. But Xiao says she has no idea what that will mean for her several hundred employees.

So far, Xiao has managed to keep the firm afloat without making large salary cuts. However, from Jan. 1, the company will no longer be able to set its own fees; it will have to follow a “guidance price” for academic tutoring services set by the government. Officials have yet to reveal what the guidance price will be.

“If the guidance price is set very low, it’ll be hard for our business to survive if we continue to offer teachers their original salaries,” says Xiao, who spoke with Sixth Tone using a pseudonym for privacy reasons.

Yet demand for tutoring appears to remain strong. Xiao says many local parents have told her they feel anxious about the growing lack of extracurricular learning options, fearing it will harm their children’s education. The fact schools are also setting less homework due to the “double reduction” policy is only adding to their concerns.

“Some have come to us and inquired if our teachers can offer private tutoring,” says Xiao. “Others have told us they were worried, after finding their kids were returning from school with no homework.”

Others have noted a similar trend. Though the “double reduction” policy aims to stop families signing up children for extra classes, a Sixth Tone survey of parents in Shanghai and Beijing in August found that over 90% wanted their children to continue receiving after-school tutoring.

It would be a wise choice to leave the sector ... But my clients picked me and I wanted to prove their choice wasn’t wrong.

For this reason, many teachers have decided to soldier on despite the worsening conditions in the industry. Li Yijun, an English tutor with the U.S.-listed firm TAL Education Group, says she considered quitting her job, as “it’s clear the tutoring business is on a downhill trajectory.” But she has chosen to continue teaching out of loyalty to her students and their families.

“It would be a wise choice to leave the sector and start over in another business right away,” says Li, who spoke using a pseudonym due to the sensitivity of the issue. “But they picked me and I wanted to prove to them that their choice wasn’t wrong.”

Li says she’s concerned about her students, who are mostly attending middle schools in Shanghai. In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve also been dealing with major reforms to China’s all-important national exams. Now, the “double reduction” policy threatens to bring yet more disruption.

“Such frequent changes … will impact their studies,” says Li. “In such a turbulent era, I want to teach them until they finish their exams.”

But TAL’s financial woes are making Li’s work increasingly difficult. The company has closed down teaching centers in several cities, including Shanghai, to cut costs and moved all classes online. 

Li says virtual teaching is a poor substitute for in-person classes, but luckily, she has lost very few students and her income hasn’t decreased by much. However, she has no idea what will happen in January, when the government’s deadline passes.

A student and a family member leave the classroom of a tutoring center in Jinhua, Zhejiang province, July 21, 2018. Shi Bufa/People Visual

A student and a family member leave the classroom of a tutoring center in Jinhua, Zhejiang province, July 21, 2018. Shi Bufa/People Visual

Going underground

Many parents are so determined to ensure their kids continue receiving extra tuition, they’re turning to the black market. A thriving industry of unlicensed tutoring centers has emerged, operating online or via classrooms hidden inside office buildings and residential compounds.

Xu Danfeng, the mother who lost nearly 60,000 yuan when OneSmart collapsed, has already signed up her son at one such underground school. But she declined to reveal its name for fear it’ll be shut down.

“We have to protect it,” says Xu. “It’s hard to find such resources these days.”

The authorities are investing significant resources to eliminate illegal tutoring. If some kids continue receiving extra classes, other families may worry their own children will fall behind and want to sign them up for illegal tuition, too.

The city of Beijing claims it has already shut down over 90% of the illegal tutoring centers authorities are aware of. The eastern city of Hangzhou, meanwhile, is offering a 50,000-yuan reward to anyone who provides tips about illegal tutoring activities.

But many centers have evaded the crackdown. Ding Qi, a mother from Shanghai, began using an unlicensed English learning platform after the tutoring firm where her daughter used to study — Best Learning — shut down in August.

The Image Bank/People Visual

The Image Bank/People Visual

The underground organization operates at least four stores on the social app WeChat, according to payment records seen by Sixth Tone. For a 600-yuan fee, parents gain entry to a group chat for three months, where the company uploads new study materials every day. The stores have already processed around 50,000 orders. 

Ding urged Sixth Tone not to publish the name of the platform. “If you do, that means the last resource I count on to help my daughter’s English might be at risk,” she says.

Some parents are taking the secrecy even further. Another Shanghai-based mother, surnamed Zhang, has banded together with a few close friends to send their children to study with an English tutor, who runs classes inside a rented office. The group has agreed to tell no one else about it. 

“We reached a consensus to avoid mentioning the center to others,” says Zhang. “What’s happening in Hangzhou has deterred many teachers.”

It’s too naïve to imagine that ‘double reduction’ can be realized by simply closing down tutoring centers.

Chu Zhaohui, a researcher at the state-run National Institute for Education Sciences, tells Sixth Tone it will be impossible to wipe out illegal tutoring through law enforcement measures alone. The ban on home-based classes, for example, will be extremely difficult to enforce.

“It’s too naïve to imagine that ‘double reduction’ can be realized by simply closing down tutoring centers,” says Chu. “Although there’s a report and reward mechanism in some cities, people will think of methods to avoid getting reported.”

The key to making the policy work, Chu says, will be reforming China’s education system to reduce the underlying demand for extra classes — a view echoed by others who spoke with Sixth Tone.

“The need for extra learning will remain as long as the school admissions system is competitive,” says Zhang, the mother sending her child to an unlicensed tutor.

Xu Lingling, the laid-off teacher, is just trying to focus on moving on. She has accepted her teaching days are numbered. A few weeks ago, her former employer New Oriental announced it would scrap its entire academic tutoring business targeting students under the 10th grade and cut another 40,000 staff — a sign of where things are headed.

“We all know our business is coming to an end in January,” she says. “Leaving now or then, it’s only a matter of time.”

Now, Xu hopes to make a career switch: She’s preparing to sit China’s civil service exams. Her experiences this year have taught her the value of job security, she says.

Additional reporting: Zhu Jingyi; editor: Dominic Morgan.

(Header image: Students and a family member wait outside the classroom of a tutoring center in Jinhua, Zhejiang province, July 21, 2018. Shi Bufa/People Visual)