For governments worldwide, education is a major policy and spending area, so it’s inevitable they try to influence it as much as their remit allows. In most Western countries, scope is often limited by the structural and segmented nature of learning, e.g. Pre-school, K12, HE, FE, corporate learning, etc.
In China, however, the government (the Chinese Communist Party or CCP) has recently started exerting far more direct control. In 2018 the Ministry of Education banned reporting by state media from discussing the top students in the National College Entrance Exams (known as gaokao 高考). Since then the CCP, via the Ministry of Education, has also effectively banned for-profit tutoring, killing off a multi-billion pound sector. Most recently, they have begun winding back where and how private schools can operate, through a variety of measures that makes working in and operating private schools far less attractive. That explains the recent boom in new international school campus building projects in Japan .
There are a few interesting things about the Chinese situation:
While the CCP pitch these changes as being about levelling-up the education playing field or, to use their words, to “establish the correct orientation of education”, what the CCP was probably concerned about was the long-term social and political impact of the huge investment by Chinese families that exposed their children to unfiltered Western educators, content and values.
The limited due diligence undertaken by private schools, on partners and political risks, reflects their interest in China as a cash cow. But EDUCATION IS POLITICAL. Wherever you are, to underestimate the political risk is a fundamental business miscalculation. Edu investors and decision makers must avoid choosing countries with weak legal and democratic structures – which for any sensible person puts China and Russia off the table. Yet I still get pitch decks from edtech companies extolling the “massive opportunities in China”. I suppose they don’t care that any edtech product used in China has to hand over user data to the CCP/Ministry of Education. While I occasionally read about company culture in pitch decks, I have yet to see one that spelt out their data and ethics policies for countries like China.
Human nature doesn’t change. Education has been a massive issue for families from across Asia for decades. Despite the edict that schools will stop talking about the gaokao, schools now talk about students and results by way of agricultural analogies, such as noting the year’s, ‘excellent crop of 1530 mangos weighing 600gms’ – deciphered this means 1520 students scored 600+ (very high) in the gaokao.
This reminds me of when the then Office of Fair Trading fined 50 of the UK’s leading private schools for running an illegal price-fixing cartel. The schools claimed they were only guilty of “breaking a law no-one knew applied to them”. In fact, the information came from a student who had been expelled for hacking. After this he hacked back into the school who had expelled him, found the incriminating evidence and sent it to the OFT. Once again proving that even in education, humans are still greedy, can’t keep secrets and will work around the barriers put in their way by governments or institutions.
For those who have invested in the Chinese education and edtech sectors, I can (with a modicum of schadenfreude) say, “I told you so”!