Even in China, one-size education does not fit all


People are paying for types of education that the state doesn’t provide

Apr 11th 2019Print edition | Special report

FOUNDED BY A 76th-generation descendant of the sage, the Confucius International School at Anren, on the outskirts of Chengdu, mixes Chinese with Western tradition. “We offer a relatively liberal education here,” says Jill Cowie, the Scottish principal. In the art block, one class discusses a Dürer etching while another designs jewellery for superheroes. Boys dressed in tailcoats and girls in kilts share the grounds with peacocks, pheasants and white rabbits. The Harry Potteresque atmosphere sits oddly with the fact that the school is now owned by a firm backed by a state-owned-enterprise.

Around the world, government schools tend to be standardised, for a range of reasons. Uniformity is cheaper than variety; governments want to inculcate a shared understanding of history and citizenship; and equality of opportunity mandates equal treatment for all. But many parents want something different for their children. In some countries that means a more religious education (see article). In China, though, three different varieties of private education are flourishing for other reasons.

Most of the private schools that now educate 10% of Chinese 6- to 18-year-olds are gaokao mills, which drill their students for the all-important end-of-school exam. But 10% of those private establishments are bilingual schools which prepare students for a university education abroad. According to data from EY-Parthenon, a consultancy, this is the fastest-growing part of the market.

A foreign university education is increasingly standard for the Chinese elite. More than 600,000 Chinese youngsters are currently studying abroad. It is a large investment—parents would not get much change from $250,000 for a degree from a decent American university—but it offers both good economic prospects and social prestige. “It’s all about anxious new money,” says Jiang Xueqin, an educational consultant. “Everybody here knows that you can only get rich by stealing money. You’re legitimising your wealth by proving how clever your family is. The degrees from Oxford or Yale—they’re reputation-laundering.”

For the love of learning

But bilingual schools also offer an escape route from the rigour and boredom of the Chinese public system. Emily Yu, a parent at YK Pao, Shanghai’s most prestigious bilingual school, describes both herself and her husband as “survivors of the Chinese system. It was quite a painful process.” Li Tong, principal of a government school in Chengdu, moved her son from the public to the private sector. “It was difficult for him in the Chinese system because he has a strong personality, with strong likes and dislikes.”

A Western style of education may offer broader benefits, too. Shelley Chen, the principal of Vanke Bilingual School in Shanghai, where pictures of Abraham Lincoln, Amelia Earhart and Martin Luther King decorate the walls, explains that many of her parents—often executives in multinational firms—think “they weren’t well prepared by their schools. They feel there’s a glass ceiling. When they compare themselves with colleagues from other parts of the world, even India, they think they’re not so good at critical thinking.” Vanke, she says, focuses on the 5cs: “Caring, communicative, confident, cordial…let me check [which she does on her computer]…creative.”

Like many of China’s private-school providers, Vanke is mainly in the property business. Elite schools help attract the rich to upmarket developments, which explains why some of the local partners of the British brands that are piling into China are property companies. There may now be too many of them. Wang Shu, founder and president of Cogdel, a consultancy in Chengdu, reckons that investors must look to third-tier cities because first- and second-tier cities are oversupplied: Chengdu alone has 37 bilingual schools. And Westminster is about to arrive.

Meet the makers

On a table at Baiyun Technician College in Guangdong sit 3D-printed models of Mao Zedong, Sun Yat-sen and Vladimir Putin, rubbing shoulders with cartoon characters. Elsewhere on the campus, students train to build and operate drones, to become baristas, to make clothes, and much more. The work being done here illustrates a second variety of education that is flourishing in China’s private sector.

Chinese state-provided higher education is, in the Confucian tradition, academic rather than practical. It does not do much for young people with more vocational interests. That is where China Education, Baiyun Technician College’s owner, has found a niche.

China Education focuses its investments on markets where demand is strong. Guangdong province, home of Baiyun Technician College and its sister institution, Baiyun University (with 27,000 students), fits the bill. Although Guangdong is rich, only 42% of school-leavers there go on to higher education, compared with 48% nationwide. China’s fast-developing high-speed and metro rail networks are another focus for the company: it owns Xian Railway College and Zhengzhou City Rail Transit School.

Liu Jianfeng, the party general secretary at Baiyun University, who has an ideological as well as a management role, takes a robustly un-ideological view of the institution’s job. “Public universities are more focused on following the government plan and ideology,” he says. “We are training up human resources to meet the demand from the marketplace.” To make the point, Baiyun Technician College’s exterior walls are painted with the logos of many of the 3,000 corporate partnerships the college has cultivated for the benefit of its 13,000 students, including with Bosch, Nestlé, Nissan, Grand Hyatt and Hilton. In order to get a job at Nissan, students train for three years; for the last four or five months of the course they are taught by Nissan employees.

Students at Baiyun University, who take degrees in vocationally oriented subjects such as engineering and accountancy, pay 19,000-28,000 yuan a year, compared with 4,500-8,000 yuan at a public university. But an impressive 91% of students leave Baiyun University with a job to go to, compared with 85% for all places of higher learning.

Of poems and peonies

A third variety of private education is audible in the corridors of the 300-year-old Qinhan Hutong, an educational centre in the old town of Shanghai built around a courtyard with a stream tumbling over rocks. In one room a group of preschoolers chants a traditional poem about a civil servant going on a long journey; in another a student plays a 21-string guitar. A mynah bird squawks next to an art teacher, who is putting the finishing touches to a painting of peonies done in the classical style.

“People think that the Chinese lack manners and civility. That’s because we lost our culture for 60 years. But for the previous 1,000 years, this culture dominated East Asia,” says Wang Shuangqiang, Qinhan Hutong’s chairman and founder, who is dressed, somewhat incongruously, in a camouflage jacket. “We don’t believe in God. We believe in our words, our calligraphy, our poetry, our ancient relics.” Three years ago Mr Wang had 35 such centres; now he has 70, with 70,000 students, who pay an average of 17,000 yuan a year. The rebirth of interest, he says, “comes from people’s hearts, and it comes from Chairman Xi. He’s always quoting ancient Chinese sayings.”

The government’s different attitudes to those three varieties of education reveal its concerns and priorities. It allowed the establishment of bilingual education in China in order to discourage parents from sending children to boarding schools in America and Britain, which they have increasingly been doing in recent years. But it is jealously guarding its hold on basic education, so it keeps those schools on a tight leash. They must use the textbooks mandated for all schools, which inculcate “core socialist values”, and follow strict rules on the amount of time to be devoted to each subject. They must host party cells and branches of the Young Pioneers, the junior wing of the Communist Party.

It is also nervous about the growing educational divide between the rich, who buy tuition, bilingual schooling and foreign degrees for their children, and everybody else, so it has clamped down on investment in the sector. Making profits from “basic” schooling for 6- to 16-year-olds has been banned.

Firms are understandably nervous about the close watch the state keeps on the sector. “Vanke wants to make children happy, parents happy and the government happy,” says Cynthia Xu, the party secretary and deputy general manager of Vanke Shanghai. “It’s very difficult to navigate the shifting sands of the Chinese regulatory environment: it’s going to be interesting to see what happens to British schools that are happily handing over their name and reputation to entities in this country if they don’t have educational expertise and a management team on the ground to navigate the regulatory environment,” says Fraser White, chief executive of Dulwich College International.

Vocational education, by contrast, faces few restrictions. The government recognises that there is unmet demand, so it helps such colleges by giving good ones a stamp of approval, which enables them to charge higher fees. “Because vocational training helps solve social problems, it has always received support from government, and we think it will go on receiving support,” says Xie Shaohua, executive director of China Education.

Mr Wang is furthering Mr Xi’s push for a cultural revival, so he encounters no interference. Indeed, he receives a subsidy of 1m yuan a year from the Shanghai municipal government. In a very small way, this example shows that the Chinese state is prepared to use the private sector to meet its educational aims. Many other governments go much further.

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