Nationalization Beats Extinction in China’s Education Sector
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After facing the threat of extinction, China’s after-school education sector is getting a reprieve that looks remarkably like nationalization. Yet the certainty of new pricing mandates could help companies like TAL Education Group reform their business models and return to break even in an industry that was once worth more than $100 billion.
Local governments will be responsible for setting price ranges for tutoring companies that offer compulsory subjects, the National Development and Reform Commission announced Monday. Adding to the strictures are rules governing how long classes can last, how much can be spent on advertising, and a requirement for greater transparency over class sizes.
Just two months ago Beijing made the surprise announcement that private companies offering school curricula can’t make a profit or raise outside capital. The news sent shares of TAL, New Oriental Education & Technology Group, and Gaotu Techedu Inc. tumbling. The policy is part of a broader initiative lead by President Xi Jinping aimed at easing the burden on parents, creating a more equitable society, and spurring families to have more children.
Xi himself has shown concern that the industry has a tendency to exploit parental anxiety over ensuring their kids get the best schooling so they can compete with peers. Such intense pressure raised the financial burden on low- and middle-income families who faced rising education costs.
Capping prices and eliminating the profit motive was the most expedient path to reducing the strain. The restrictions, which include a ban on weekend and holiday classes, could cut revenue at TAL and New Oriental by up to 80%, according to Bloomberg Intelligence estimates. But the upside is that lower prices may also get more students into these after-school programs, making such services accessible to a larger swathe of society.
If they can adapt, then private education providers may be back on the path to break even. That’s a long way from expectations that China’s market for private tutoring would almost double to 1.17 trillion yuan ($183 billion) in 2023, from 619.1 billion yuan in 2019. New Oriental was on track for record net income before the crackdown began and it canceled an earnings announcement scheduled for August.
“An enlarged student base can yield economies of scale against their leaner cost structure, particularly after teachers' salaries and marketing expenses shrink, in accordance with new government guidelines,” Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Catherine Lim wrote. “New Oriental and TAL could reduce their losses in 2023 if they accelerate cost cuts and attract more students to their new classes.”
China’s private education sector could also serve as a warning for other industries that Beijing might view as high-pressure, exploitative or misaligned with national goals. These broad policies fall under the collective mantra of “common prosperity,” a doctrine put forth by Xi that includes reining in technology companies and reorienting industry toward the greater good rather than individual wealth or fame.
While there’s no suggestion yet that these private schools will incur any level of state ownership — a process underway for data providers — strict rules on profits, pricing and marketing are akin to de facto nationalization.
That needn’t be a profit destroyer — companies that are majority or minority state-owned can still make money — but will be an innovation killer. Gone are the incentives and freedom to take risks or try new approaches. In education, it’s clear that Beijing doesn’t want anyone to think outside the box. We’re seeing that approach spread to content and culture, too.
But as long as the government also comes up with a model for how companies can operate, there’s every chance that even shackled businesses will survive.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.
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