China’s international school sector threatened by Covid and crackdown

Parents who planned to send their children to the New Oriental bilingual primary and junior high school in Beijing next academic year are having to look elsewhere.

Private education company New Oriental announced in March that it would shut the school, one of hundreds of its kind set up across China since the 1990s to offer mainly Chinese pupils a foreign-style education. New rules barred the company from financially supporting such schools, New Oriental said.

The closure is a symptom of broader woes in China’s private international education sector, which has been hit hard by a regulatory crackdown and by tough anti-coronavirus policies that have prompted an exodus of foreign teachers.

According to Beijing-based research and consultancy firm NewSchool Insight, China in 2020 had over 535 “privately run international schools” teaching over 450,000 pupils. Most of them are bilingual schools and many are affected by rules announced last year that restrict the involvement of for-profit companies and require use of the state curriculum up to at least pupils’ ninth year of education.

China also has 113 international schools that are only allowed to teach foreign nationals and that have around 99,000 pupils, according to NewSchool Insight. Such schools have not been affected by the regulatory crackdown, but are suffering badly from the shortage of foreign teachers.

“The situation is dire everywhere,” said a headteacher at an international school in a northern Chinese city that teaches only foreign children.

“Teachers have been bleeding out of China,” the headteacher said, adding that his school had struggled to hire replacements from abroad due to strict border control measures imposed by China to stop Covid-19.

The British Chamber of Commerce in China has estimated that up to 60 per cent of foreign teachers will leave their positions this year.

Ker Gibbs, a former head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, said falling enrolment of students and the rising cost of teachers posed an “existential threat” to international schools for foreign children.

“The bilingual schools also face difficulties, as they need native English speakers for their classrooms [and] Beijing’s policies are becoming more restrictive, putting limits on the use of foreign textbooks,” Gibbs said.

The Chinese government in 2021 wiped billions of dollars from the value of listed private education providers when it banned the $100bn-a-year industry from making a profit from core tutoring services aimed at children.

The ban was disastrous for providers such as US-listed New Oriental, which suffered a net loss of $122mn between June 2021 and February 2022, compared with a profit of $151mn income during the same period of the previous financial year.

Cram centre closures also disrupted an essential recruiting pipeline for bilingual and other international schools.

Brett Isis, chief executive of Teaching Nomad, a teacher placement agency, said more than 100,000 foreign teachers were employed in English after-school tutoring centres in China before the ban, but the number was rapidly depleting and salaries for those that remained had “skyrocketed”.

The ban on for-profit tutoring has had other effects: one US teacher at a bilingual school in Beijing said his students’ English has noticeably declined since it was imposed last year.

Schools also put less emphasis on English learning and many students were focusing more on subjects such as mathematics and Chinese, the teacher said.

Gibbs said the changes to regulation of bilingual schools were part of a “broader Sinification of the economy and the society”. 

“In the early days of China’s development, they needed foreign capital, foreign knowhow, and foreign technology. They needed a lot from the outside world to accelerate their development. They are well on that path now, and their needs are different,” he said.

Julian Fisher, an education consultant in Beijing and vice-chair of the British Chamber of Commerce in China, said top-ranking bilingual schools and international schools for foreign children would survive the pandemic. “There is still demand for high-quality schools.” 

But Fisher said the restrictions on profitmaking in the education sector coupled with the downturn in China’s property industry meant investment in new schools had dried up. Large Chinese property companies are the financiers behind hundreds of bilingual schools.

The increasingly constrictive regulatory regime is prompting some British schools to reconsider involvement in the mainland Chinese market after more than a decade of rapid expansion.

England’s Westminster School last year scrapped plans to develop six schools in China because of the regulatory changes. A Beijing bilingual school affiliated with the 450-year-old English public school Harrow was this year forced to drop its famous brand name because of the new rules.

China’s bilingual schools have been seen by many parents as a stepping stone to studying overseas. But Fisher said parents with children about to start school were now “reconsidering taking the international path”.

“We could well have reached the apex of Chinese students going overseas,” he said.