This week’s post features a conversation with Yiwen Wang, author of Educational Privatization in China: A Case Study, recently published by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (NCSPE) at Teachers College, Columbia University. Samuel Abrams, Director of NCSPE, explains that “In focusing on one middle school, Wang, a native of Guiyang who recently completed a master’s degree in education policy at Teachers College, illustrates the evolution and process of private provision of education in a country where private education barely existed a generation ago.” In this interview, Wang describes how her own experiences growing up in China contributed to her interest in researching private schooling, what she learned through her research, and some of the key issues she sees for private schools in China in the future.
IEN: How did you get interested in private education in China?
Yiwen Wang: The school that this case study focuses on is in my hometown of Guiyang, Guizhou Province, China. 10-20 years ago, the best quality schools in Guiyang were public schools. But in recent years, the good schools that people talked about have undergone great changes. Now, everyone is trying to get into private primary and secondary schools. Moreover, I also noticed that many of my teachers in the past have left the stable working environment of public secondary schools and chose to join private schools to teach. Why do private schools rise? Why do teachers make such career choices? What is the government’s attitude towards private education? What stage is private education now undergoing in Guiyang? I got curious about these issues.
IEN: How does what you found in this case study compare to education in other schools (Private or public) in China?
Wang: Most of the research on private schools in China has focused on Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Guangdong, and other economically and educationally developed cities or coastal areas. Few scholars have turned their eyes to the central and western regions. Yet in these regions, too, more and more private schools are emerging and changing the local educational ecology. In focusing on Guiyang, capital of the southwestern province of Guizhou, this study concerns a relatively underdeveloped area of China. In Guiyang, private schools have nevertheless rapidly multiplied over the past decade, taking many teachers from public schools and attracting a large number of students. But while new schools are born every year, there are also many private schools that are dying amidst market competition.
The Mei Jia International School that is concerned about in this case study is such a school that is struggling in the fierce competition. As a school without a strong background from a prestigious university, it faces problems such as high teacher turnover rate and difficulties in enrolling students. No one knows whether it will become a survivor or a sacrifice of private education in Guiyang. In order to survive, Mei Jia is trying various methods, such as discussed in my working paper:
“With the support of the government and the desire of families for the best opportunity for their children, many prestigious universities in developed regions have also come to Guiyang to establish affiliated secondary schools. This migration of outside competition has at once intensified the exam culture and placed greater pressure on local private schools to enroll students and attract teachers. Mei Jia, in response to this competition, chose to join the No.3 Experimental High School Group. More and more small and medium-sized private schools are likewise teaming up with other schools, setting up school groups, or offering preferential admission to students in each other’s schools.”
IEN: What did you learn about education in China from this study that you did not know before?
Wang: I used to think that the rise of private education in Guiyang was mainly due to the growing demand for education accompanying the improvement of economic conditions. But in the course of this study, I found that in addition to the growing educational demands, the rise of private education is also closely related to the government’s transformation of public and private education policies as I discussed in this case study:
“According to government regulations, if students choose to attend a public school, they can only enter the school designated by the government according to their household address. However, at that time, these [public] schools also conducted their own entrance examinations to enroll cross-regional students with good scores as ‘transient students.’ These students could study in the name of auditing, and an auditing fee would be charged by the school on a semester basis. This process was permitted by the government until 2004.
“The termination of this process coincided with the establishment of many private schools. These schools have since taken away many excellent teachers from these key middle schools, some of whom went on to assume leadership positions at these private schools.”
“…the government advocates equal education, public schools can only accept students classified by household address; as noted, since 2004, they have been barred from selecting students by exam scores. The government has focused its effort on popularizing the nine-year compulsory education and guaranteeing education for the children of migrant workers who come from rural areas to work in cities. Yet the government has focused less on improving the quality of teaching in public schools.”
“…On the other hand, the government has provided strong support to private schools in terms of school land use. The government subsidizes private schools through substantial discounts on property leases.”
These changes in policy have made the past decade a golden period for the growth of private education in Guiyang. And through this study, I began to get a better understanding of the reasons for the change in the educational landscape in my hometown.
IEN: What’s next for private schooling in China? What are the issues that are being discussed?
Wang: China’s private education still presents regional differences. More and more internationally renowned schools and innovative schools are entering developed regions such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou. In 2019, the famous British private school Harrow School announced that it will establish a campus in Shenzhen. The Avenues: The World School and Whittle School & Studios also started enrolling students in Shenzhen in September this year. Many private schools in these areas have adopted international education systems, such as Cambridge A-level, IB, and the Waldorf Education System. Students in these schools usually choose to earn higher degrees overseas.
However, when we look at China’s central and western regions, that is, economically underdeveloped regions, such as Guiyang, we find a completely different picture. Guiyang’s private education is still centered on China’s middle and high school entrance examination system and is guided by test scores. Many private schools attract students not through the internationally renowned school background, but the endorsement of famous Chinese universities.
But no matter what kind of regional differences exist, private education can be described as in full swing in today’s China, showing the growth and change in educational needs of Chinese families as their economic conditions improve. But there are also concerns. Most notably, public school faculty and high-income students have flowed to private schools. The uneven distribution of educational resources may lead to more difficult class movements and an expansion of the income gap.