When China’s economy started to open up to the world, so started a desire to learn English, the so-called new global language. Today, English education occupies a key place in China’s overall education system.
That is not to say China emphasizes English to the detriment of other subjects. Math, science and Chinese literature occupy key places on the school timetable. And standards of English teaching still vary from place to place. Teaching in rural schools will differ from teaching in first-tier cities for instance.
Nonetheless, present-day China is awash with business people who require English for communication, young people who want to study abroad or those who just see English as an extra life-skill. And this has created many opportunities for English-speaking expats.
A brief History of English Education in China
The expansion of English education in China can in large part be traced back to the so-called “reform and opening-up” initiated by former leader Deng Xiao Ping who took office in 1978. In short, Deng aimed to open up the Chinese market to foreign investment which would in turn bring economic benefits to the Chinese people.
Long gone were the days when many Chinese would study Russian, the language of their previous communist ally. Instead, with overseas firms looking to invest in China and indeed more and more tourists from overseas visiting their homeland, Chinese people would need to learn the new global language – English.
A few key events demonstrate the growing importance of English education in recent Chinese history:
English becomes a subject in the Gaokao, China’s national college entrance exam.
State broadcaster China Central Television starts broadcasting Follow Me!, a BBC English-learning TV program.
College English Test Band 4 was introduced in higher education institutions with College English Test Band 6 introduced 2 years later. Some institutions even said students could not obtain their bachelor’s degrees without passing this test.
The number of Chinese students heading abroad to study sees a significant increase. The market for private English education also grows rapidly during this time.
(Source accessed on 01/24/2020: China Daily)
The English Education Market
In addition to China’s efforts in public education, a market for private English education across China has also seen significant growth. According to Statista, the market in 2017 was estimated at around 41.5 billion USD and projected to grow to 75 billion USD by 2022. I would hazard a guess that the true value is probably higher if you take into account all the private tutors who get paid under the table in cash.
Generally, the market can be divided into the following categories:
1. Kids and teens
Attending English training centres and private classes is extremely popular amongst Chinese young people. Or perhaps I should say popular amongst the parents as they are normally the ones who make such decisions. Parents want their kids to get a head-start. Even students as young as three attend English classes. Generally students anywhere up to the age of 18 attend kids and teens classes. Some drop out around the 15-18 year old mark as they prepare for the Gaokao, the examinations which will determine their place at university.
This part of the market tends to bring a mixture of students. The young energetic 20-somethings may see extra English classes as a means to climbing the career ladder. On the other hand, you may also get older students who just want to learn English to better themselves. A friend of mine who taught at an adult training centre said he occasionally came across retirees who just wanted something to do.
3. Business English
This overlaps to a large extent with the second category. As the name suggests, it is for those who want to improve their ability to communicate in the world of work. This could be anything from learning how to do basic administrative tasks in English for beginners, to learning key phrases and vocabulary for business negotiations for more advanced students.
4. Exam preparation
This one does not require too much explanation. It is a particularly big market for students looking to study abroad. Those applying to universities in the United States will take the TOEFL and those applying to universities in the United Kingdom will take IELTS. Given the importance of such exams, it is perhaps one of the more high-pressure parts of the English education market for both student and teacher.
These of course are not definitive categories. Some may overlap and some English education jobs may even branch into different categories altogether.
Opportunities for Expats
Demand for learning English in China is not going to die down anytime soon. This means there will still be opportunities for expats in the near to long-term future, especially native English-speakers, to teach English in China. A huge jobs market covers public schools, universities, private language centres and more. Just remember to follow all the necessary rules and regulations such as getting a category-Z visa for work before arriving in China.
You may even consider going it alone and starting your own business. Many expats have started their own English language centres, education consultancy businesses and more. But again, make sure you follow all the necessary rules and regulations. Doing business in China can be complicated. Do your research beforehand.
Whatever job is right for you, the English education jobs market in China remains healthy for expats. You never know. The right opportunity might just be waiting for you.