Reactions to China’s 2009 and 2012 first-place scores in the OECD’s PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test revealed the diversity of international perceptions of education in China. Responses ranged from foul play, bias and derision to awe and admiration – British politicians and educators even suggested importing Shanghai’s teachers to boost Britain’s ailing maths scores.
One thing is clear: With its Confucian heritage, education is central to Chinese society and subsequently has a huge influence on China’s consumer dynamics. Chinese consumers spend an average of 13% of their household income on education, and understanding education in China therefore presents a wealth of opportunities to educators and marketers.
Sea Turtles (haigui -海归, 海龟) or Seaweed (haidai -海待, 海带)?
Studying abroad has never been more attractive to the Chinese, with 459,800 Chinese students estimated to have studied in destinations such as the US, Australia and Western Europe in 2014. Chinese students are highly valuable for Western education institutions –accounting for 22% of fee-paying international students at Australian universities for example. Many international universities are also adapting their entry requirements specifically to cater to Chinese students, with an increasing number accepting the Gaokao, the make or break national college entrance exam, as a means of entrance.
Upon their return to China, these foreign-educated students are colloquially nicknamed Sea Turtles, playing upon the Chinese homophone – “returnees from overseas”. Since the opening-up of China in 1978, 3.5 million Chinese have studied abroad, with 1.8 million of them returning home after finishing their studies. The rate of return has steadily increased over recent years. Traditionally, Sea Turtles have been in high demand amongst employers in China for their international education and fluent language skills, which were rarities amongst Chinese graduates until recently. However, some would argue that increasing sophistication of the Chinese higher education sector is seeing Sea Turtles’ market value erode.
Many Westernised Sea Turtles face challenges whilst integrating into a Chinese work culture shaped by personal relationships (guanxi关系) and a professional culture which is worlds apart from their experiences in the West. A proportion of Chinese employers perceive an international education as conveying no tangible benefit to their companies. Sea Turtles and their families have often incurred significant expenses from their overseas education and, combined with low graduate salaries in China (the average graduate with a Bachelor’s degree earned the equivalent of $590 USD per month in 2014), creating a significant financial disincentive to study abroad.
These factors have led to Sea Turtles being given the unfortunate nickname of “Seaweed” (haidai海待, 海带); with Chinese students who have studied overseas being depicted as “washed up” in China with little advantage over their domestic educated counterparts.
However, this dismissal of foreign educated Chinese as “washed up” can be seen as premature, with an increasingly globalised professional environment leading many Chinese parents, students and employers to continue to favour an international skill set. Perhaps a more balanced stance to adopt would be to recognise that ambitious Chinese students are enjoying better higher educational options than ever before within China, and that the Sea Turtle – although by no means obsolete – is facing healthy domestic competition.
China’s increasingly tech savvy 668 million internet users, combined with China’s seemingly never-ending thirst for education, have created an explosion in the popularity of education technology and e-learning in recent years. There were over 1,000 new online education companies opened for business in 2013 and an estimated 100 million eLearning users in China in 2014. More than 70,000 education apps are now available to Chinese consumers (representing 10% of the app marketplace in China). With China’s online education market predicted to surge in value to $5.9 billion by 2018, Edutech’s influence only looks set to grow.
A major component of this trend towards online education is the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). MOOCs have been adopted as part of the Chinese government’s education agenda to reduce urban-rural inequalities in access to education. The Chinese Ministry of Education is working to build the ‘Open University of China’ and encouraging China’s top universities to offer online courses, with the promise of subsidies should they do so. China’s MOOCs are characterised by their diversity; from state-sponsored initiatives from Peking University and Alibaba – to small unaccredited grassroots start-ups such as Wanmen University. Opportunities in online education are not confined to university students, with online applications available to pre-school and school-age students, as well as specialised applications and programmes for test preparations and professional development. Leading apps include; Wanxue, XiaozhanJiaoyu and Genshuixue. China’s vast extracurricular tutoring market is worth a whopping 200 billion RMB ($31.4 billion) in total.
For now, the pull of Chinese traditional institutions remains strong, however proponents of MOOCs and online learning programmes argue that these courses can offer a viable and highly accessible alternative to what they see as China’s bureaucratic and rigid education system. Whether Edutech can make a meaningful contribution to social equality in education is yet to be seen, as an estimated 80% of MOOCs students in China are from the wealthiest 6% of households.
Edutech also presents a plethora of commercial opportunities, providing online advertisers with access to large, centralised and technologically astute online communities. In many ways the online education market shares parallels with ecommerce, with the potential to seamlessly deliver high quality and easily accessible educational services across China.
Gaokao Economy – Gaokao Jingji 高考经济
Renowned worldwide for being insanely stressful and high stakes, China’s Higher Education entrance exam, the Gaokao高考, is of such integral importance to success, that it has even generated its own ‘mini-economy’ – the so called, ‘Gaokao Economy’高考经济. In the lead up to this future-defining exam, many businesses cash in on student and parent anxieties to create Gaokao product promotions. For example, in order to save precious study time, students and their parents can search on China’s online booking service, Ctrip, for a “Gaokao Hotel” which is close to the exam venue. 2013 media reports claim that parents in Shanghai would fork out as much as 5,000 RMB ($785) per night to stay in hotels close to their child’s Gaokao test centre.
Education materials, lucky charms, and ‘brain foods’ such as fish oil also soar in popularity in the lead up to the Gaokao, with retailers promoting these products as means to improve frazzled students’ performance and to ensure they have good luck in the exam.
The intense pressure of the Gaokao exam has also led to many students and their parents taking extreme measures to ensure success in the exam; some of the most publicised examples of which include students becoming “Gaokao immigrants”, and travelling to less developed regions in order to sit exams with lower passing grades, although the practice is illegal. Inner Mongolian authorities identified and disqualified 1,465 students last year who were sitting the exam fraudulently. Other schools have resorted to measures such as deploying drones to scan for radio signals in order to identify those students who have become increasingly ingenious in their attempts to cheat the system. Some students and their parents are so desperate that they enter “Gaokao Sweatshops” – highly priced boarding schools which put students through grueling boot-camp style exam preparation, with the promise of ensuring success in the exam.
In response to the pressures of the Gaokao and its toll upon both students and parents, many upper and middle class Chinese are increasingly favoring a Western-style education over the Chinese traditional system. A recent survey by China’s Industrial Bank and the Hurun Report revealed that 90% of China’s super-rich intend to send their children abroad to study. International schools and qualifications such as SATs, A-Levels and the International Baccalaureate are also growing steadily in popularity –over 40,000 Mainland Chinese students took the SAT in Hong Kong in 2012.