The tutoring boom led to unhealthy competition and severe anxiety. When more and more students took tutoring classes, those who did not were put at a disadvantage and their parents were compelled to follow suit for fear of losing the race at the starting line. The intense competition significantly overloaded students and placed undue burdens on their health. Seven- or eight-year-olds often endured 5-6 hours of tutoring on a school day and 12-13 hours each day of the weekend. Several tutors openly voiced concerns when they saw pupils dozing off during sessions.
Tutoring has also put significant financial pressure and mental stress on families. Parents complained that tutoring costs took up such a large portion of their total household income that it crowded out other expenses and activities, reducing overall living standards. But because all their children’s peers were enrolled in tutoring course, they felt compelled to do the same. Parents were pained to watch their children suffering through classes they disliked, not having time to play as kids should. Many young couples admitted that the prospects of having to endure such anxiety and the financial burden discouraged them from having children.
An education market hijacked by profit-making
The Chinese online education market has been massively popular among investors in recent times. According to a Chinese think tank report, in 2020, the total capital raised by 111 unlisted online education firms was approximately RMB540 billion (US$84.4 billion), a sharp increase of 267.4 percent year-on-year. Major investors have included financial giants such as Tiger Global, Sequoia, Hillhouse and Softbank, among others.
This capital boost soon over-saturated and distorted the market, leading firms into ravenous user-grabbing, extravagant advertising campaigns, and fierce price wars. Parents’ anxiety was exploited as a sales pitch: slogans such as “take (tutoring classes) or your kid will lag behind” or “don’t have regrets one day when you could have done more for your kid today” became prevalent. Companies offered extra-long-term packages (which violated government regulations) at discounts and lured customers into paying in advance. Parents of primary students have often pre-paid for tutoring courses all the way through high school. It even became common for sales reps to push cash-tight parents to take out installment loans to pre-pay for tuition. Companies that adopted such irresponsible practices included many of the most prominent players.
This dysfunction derailed the education sector from its fundamental purpose. The education of a student was less important than the growth of subscriber numbers, while a family’s hope for their child’s future was exploited as a way to make a profit. Education, a fundamental public good, instead became a sector riven by commercial rivalries and turbo-charged by parental demand ramped up by fears that youngsters would be left behind.
Many people in China still have vivid memories of the period of the “industrialization of education” from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, during which the government, due to severe financial deficits and insufficient education budgets, mandated public educational institutions to function as businesses and sustain themselves by generating revenue. This practice led to significant market distortions, all sorts institutional misbehavior and social anxiety and unrest. Knowledge of this part of history is essential to understanding people’s resentment towards a market-driven education sector.
How education inequality made reform necessary
It is a fundamental belief of the Chinese people that education changes one’s fate. For more than 1,300 years until 1905, the Keju (科举), or imperial examinations, were the most effective way for people of humble backgrounds to climb up the social ladder. The modern-day Gaokao (高考), or college entrance exam system, though widely criticized for its rigidity, is still regarded as the fairest way to evaluate students. It allows everyone to excel by the same standard, regardless of wealth or social status.
Facing expanding income disparity, skyrocketing housing prices and increasing class rigidity, the Chinese regard education as a last resort to break class barriers. With this path clogged, social tensions only mount and eventually lead to unrest. For the government, therefore, education equality is not merely a sectoral or societal concern, but a political one, too.
By introducing the financial factor to the meritocratic equation, private institutions pivoted the education sector towards plutocracy. Hard work and perseverance are no longer the decisive factors for excellence and achievement; instead, academic success depends on how much money a family can spend. While parents are distressed over not investing enough in their kids’ education, the students are overwhelmed by the extra work and endless hours beyond their already heavy school schedules.