Changes to the online teaching market in China in 2021: what you need to know

There have been rumblings for several months about major changes to the online tutoring market in China. This August those changes were brought into force and we’re now starting to see the impact of them with online teaching companies in China finding themselves restricted in terms of when lessons can be conducted and who by.

So, what does all of this mean for EFL teachers working online? Let’s take a look at what this new legislation is and how it affects the industry.

What has happened to the online teaching market in China?

In late July, the Chinese Ministry of Education announced it would be rolling out new legislation with big implications for how the online tutoring market operates in the country.

Education in China is highly competitive, with most parents putting as much money as they can into their child’s education from a very young age all in preparation for sitting the gaokao in their final year of school. The gaokao is a notoriously difficult university entrance exam that around 10 million Chinese students take every year and determines if and where they go to university.

The pressure on students (and parents financially) can be immense and the Chinese government now seems to be taking steps to alleviate that. New legislation restricts how long and when tutoring outside of the schooling system takes place, as well as who can conduct it. This last point is most pertinent to online EFL teachers.

Male teacher recording a lesson via a phone

What does this mean for online English teachers?

The new legislation places a ban on online teaching companies hiring teachers outside of China. This means that it will no longer be possible for English teachers living elsewhere in the world to get hired by an online teaching company that caters to young Chinese students.

We are aware of the following companies issuing statements to teachers outlining the suspension of contracts with Chinese students: 51Talk, VIPKid, Zebra English, Qkids, Dada, PalFish, GOGOKID, Whales English, and Landi. Some of these have been with immediate effect, others are allowing teachers to continue working with students who have prepaid for lessons. But Chinese students will have no option going forward to purchase lessons from foreign teachers via online teaching companies.

What can teachers do? 

First things first: don’t panic. If you’re a teacher who was working for a Chinese company and have found yourself without work, or you’re working towards your TEFL qualification and are now worried about your job prospects, it’s important to know that you have options!

The reality of the new legislation is that a lot of online English teachers working for Chinese companies will lose most, if not all, of their students. However, some Chinese companies also cater to adults (the legislation does not affect the tutoring of adults) and also operate outside of China, so if you work for a company based in China make sure to check this out. For those companies focused solely on the young Chinese market the future looks very uncertain.

Now is the time to consider upskilling. The more impressive your CV the easier it will be to secure work with another non-Chinese online teaching company, which you can do with advanced TEFL training.

And remember that working for an online company is not the only way to teach English online! If you already have some teaching experience under your belt it’s worth considering freelance teaching and developing your niche. Get up to speed with marketing yourself and make use of online marketplaces where you can create a profile and set your own prices. If you’re prepared to adapt then there are opportunities out there for you.

Our co-founder and Managing Director, Jennifer MacKenzie, had this to say on the situation:

“In my 30 odd years in TEFL I have seen many changes in legislation brought in, enforced, and then quietly dropped again and new opportunities previously never thought of, appear. English, for better, or for worse is the world’s lingua franca, and there are always opportunities for those ready to look for them.”

A female teacher conducting an online lesson using a phone

An underground teaching market

While the new legislation in China seeks to reduce the pressure on Chinese students, it seems highly unlikely that parents’ desire to prepare their children as much as possible for the gaokao will disappear overnight. There are reports of Chinese parents frantically trying to secure online tutors directly and using VPNs to access sites like Facebook to connect with them. Teachers are also finding ways to get onto WeChat to find Chinese students desperate for lessons.

It’s unclear if China will introduce further measures to crack down on this but it seems that, at least for now, the market has been driven somewhat underground. Teachers may be able to work directly with Chinese students in this way at the moment, but it would be unwise to rely on this alone due to the unpredictability of the situation. If you’re going to build a sustainable income from online teaching then it would be safer to focus your efforts on online teaching that isn’t concentrated on the young Chinese market.

For tips and advice about teaching English online, including how to advertise yourself as an online teacher, creating demo lessons, starting out & lots more see our previous blog posts.

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