How China’s private tutoring regulations are affecting online teachers

Stock photo via Bridge Education Group

Online teachers in Thailand, and elsewhere, are struggling to grapple with China’s changes to its private tutoring regulations. And, the outcome is not good, as thousands of digital nomad educators are finding themselves jobless.

In the past few months, big name tutoring companies, that employ thousands of English teachers, have announced that their main clientele of chinese students, are leaving. Such big name companies as VIPKid and DaDaABC have made announcements that they would stop selling online classes taught by foreign-based tutors to comply with a series of measures that were released by China’s central government back in July. The measures, essentially, have banned overseas teachers from conducting any training activity in China.

Online teachers at VIPKid were only given less than 1 month’s notice about losing their jobs, as at first, the emails sent to them only mentioned that the new regulations could be viewed in a hyperlink contained in the emails.

One American teacher turned online tutoring guru, who wishes to have her name kept anonymous, says that she wasn’t sure if her job would be gone by the beginning of November after seeing an email from VIPKid that was sent on October 5th. The email, she says, did not mention anything about losing her job, but did mention the regulations. As the regulations came about in July of 2021, everything seemed to be up in the air, as enforcement of the regulations was yet to be seen. On October 15th, she says the email came that made many online teachers unsure of how they would be able to find another job.

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“We are saddened to share that starting November 5, 2021, students in the Chinese mainland will no longer be able to take Major Course, Starlight, and Supplementary classes with foreign teachers living outside of China. Parents will no longer be able to book additional Major Course, Starlight, and Supplementary classes with foreign teachers living outside of China after October 19, 2021. Any Major Course, Starlight, and Supplementary classes that are already scheduled or booked will still take place until November 5, 2021.”

As VIPKid and other large tutoring companies employed as many as 70,000 foreign tutors from North America, the forced downsizing has had a large impact on those who worked in the online teaching industry. Many teachers are now finding other jobs instead of staying on with such tutoring companies as they say the new offered salaries aren’t enough to support them. One Twitter user from the state of North Carolina in America, says the changes have negatively affected her family.

“This is a game changer for me and my family. I’ve taught online ESL for almost 4 years. It’s a big blow to my heart as much as our finances.”

Supporters of the new regulations have said that they are necessary because of problems in the private tutoring sector, which includes the online English tutoring services provided by overseas teachers. As Covid-19 forced many students to learn from home, the spotlight on online teachers’ qualifications grew more intense. Complaints were launched over a wide range of issues concerning the teachers and their teaching methods and/or qualifications.

Although the new regulations have been catastrophic for educators and companies alike, the Chinese government isn’t stopping there. According to a Global Times article, “Beijing education authorities have banned the use of foreign textbooks in primary and junior high schools in the Chinese capital, which is seen by experts as the latest development in China’s regulations on schools’ use of teaching materials.”

The document that announced the ban on such books, also noted that city schools’ textbooks will now be based on the national curriculum with authorities strictly reviewing them. Foreign textbooks would, essentially, be banned in such schools for primary and junior high school students. For high school students, foreign textbooks would only be allowed if they adhered to national and municipal policies.

China’s Ministry of Education announced the ban back in January of 2020, but enforcement of the ban varied from city to city. Now, however, the enforcement has grown stronger. And, even more regulations have been announced.

As China is known for its extremely competitive schooling environment, the government is taking steps to, what it says, curb the amount of stress on young students. Since China’s large population creates stiff competition for students, many children often go to school and then return home only to study even more. Thus, the head-to-head battle for acceptance into good schools is overwhelming. Such exams, like the zhong kao and the gao kao, which are respectably high school and university entrance tests, see many families stressing over their children’s education. As one single exam score can heavily influence their child’s life trajectory, the pressure to succeed is almost unbearable.

The burden of these exams has seen families spending a large part of their income on extra tutoring, weekend classes and supplemental materials. The effect on kids, is also evident. Now, as the China’s population is aging, the government is pushing for families to have more children. The new regulations are thought to focus on lessening the mental and financial stress on parents.

China’s official Xinhua news agency also reported that the country had passed an education law to ease homework pressures on students. The law states that homework is no longer allowed to be given, nor is private tutoring (in person or online) for core subjects. Private tutoring is also not allowed on holidays or weekends. And, foreign tutoring online is also banned.

The move comes as part of a growing assertiveness of the state in recent months when it comes to activities deemed harmful to the country’s youth. Local officials are being tasked with strengthening their supervison in order to reduce the burden on students in terms of homework and extracurricular lessons, according to Xinhua news agency.

Private tutoring companies are also being ordered to go nonprofit. The law also addresses internet usage and has curbed it to 3 hours per week for each child and only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The government says internet addiction is not healthy for young minds, and has likened internet addiction to “spiritual opium.” It is now passing the baton to parents to help regulate their child’s activities online.

“Parents … must allocate in a reasonable way for minors the time devoted to studies, rest, entertainment and physical activity in order not to increase their learning load and to avoid any internet addiction.”

The government is also encouraging the abandonment of blind, online celebrity worship by youths. And, it is advising Chinese men to be less “feminine” and more “manly.”

Critics, however, say it’s just another example of China tightening its grip on outside influence. As seen in Hong Kong, the tolerance for outside influence and dissent is largely absent. According to Radio Free Asia, China has also stopped issuing new passports to its citizens and has imposed entry and exit controls. The move has been cited by the government as part of its efforts to control the spread of Covid-19, but critics say the ruling Chinese Communist Party is using the pandemic as an excuse to curb freedom of movement.

Chinese nationals living in mainland China have told RFA that the government has gradually stopped issuing new passports and exit visas, creating a slew of hurdles that Chinese nationals must jump over in order to leave. Chinese Entry and Exit Bureau spokesman, Chen Jie, confirmed the regulations in a news conference.

“We will be implementing a strict approvals systems with no permits for non-emergency or non-essential trips out of China, to ensure public safety during the pandemic.”

But, many are finding that the rules aren’t making sense, and seem to have been created with other motives in mind. Some Chinese nationals have reported being stranded after returning home to China from the USA, in order to visit family and renew their expiring passports. Yet, their passports weren’t renewed by the government.

And, those Chinese nationals already in America, who are trying to renew their passports at the Chinese consulate, are being denied. Now, many are banding together and hiring a lawyer to sue the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles.

Current affairs commentator Fang Yuan, told RFA that China is probably using such restrictions as a hit back at America after the recent crackdown on Chinese companies listing in the U.S. Fang says, however, that the regulations being implemented could be another move made in the Sino-U.S. trade war.

Such restrictions along with the banning of online foreing teachers have left some wondering if there will be enough English teachers inside China to fill the gap.

For companies like VIPKid, the regulations have left them scrambling to refund parents who paid for classes in advance. The American teacher says many parents pay for as many as 500 classes in advance and are now asking the company for refunds. In response, the company has said that refunds would be available in 3 months after submitting a request, but many parents remain skeptical.

The company has also reworked their currently offered classes to consist of artificial intelligence lessons, which features the company’s English teachers giving lessons in a recorded video. As there is no interaction between students and the recorded lessons, the company is now offering each previous interactive class to account for 3 AI classes in an effort to retain their profits. The anonymous American teacher, says that the company is losing billions of U.S. dollars since the regulation came into effect.

“The refund of classes is a huge scandal. Parents have requested refunds from VIPKid, but since there are over 800,000 students enrolled, the company can’t afford to refund all of them.”

VIPKid’s new global platform is hoping to attract students from other countries after losing Chinese students as its biggest clients. But, as the salary offered for its teachers has been drastically cut, many are trying to find other jobs. Other tutoring companies that also had Chinese students as their biggest clientele, are in the same boat.

What’s more troubling, is how these new regulations will affect China’s youth in the future. As globalisation is on the rise, critics say China is taking a large step backwards in its efforts to help its youth be successful on the international stage.


Ann Carter

Ann Carter is an award-winning journalist from the United States with over 12 years experience in print and broadcast news. Her work has been featured in America, China and Thailand as she has worked internationally at major news stations as a writer and producer. Carter graduated from the Walter Williams Missouri School of Journalism in the USA.

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