A Long (Virtual) Walk Home: China cuts ties with American educators

The New Policy

The multi-billion-dollar tutoring industry in both China and the United States has experienced major disruption since the later months of 2021. The Chinese government issued a new policy called “Opinions on Further Reducing the Burden of Homework and Extracurricular Training for Students in Compulsory Education,” which now bans Chinese students from receiving tutoring in core subjects on weekends and school holidays. What has possibly been the biggest blow to the industry is the second piece of the policy, which states that all foreign tutors are banned from teaching children in mainland China, for all subjects. In a country where an estimated 400 million people are learning English, it’s no surprise that the demand for ESL teachers is high.  Despite the demand, hundreds of thousands of English tutors are suddenly without jobs and are left scratching their heads at the strange turn of events.

According to Flexjobs, online tutoring is the third most common remote-working job that Americans have. Up until the last few months, there were over 100 Chinese-based online education companies that taught English as a second language to Chinese natives. Most of these major online companies like VIPKid, Magic Ears, and GoGoKid specifically employed Americans and Canadians to teach ESL to Chinese children. A 2019 report by Forbes highlights just how big of a player a company like VIPKid was in the education industry; the report states that they were valued at over $3 billion, employed about 65,000 American teachers, and were rated as one of the top three remote working platforms. That same Forbes report from 2019 also stated that “after-school tutoring accounts for about 15% of household income in China, making it a giant market with tremendous growth potential.” The near-collapse of the industry was unexpected for teachers, employees, investors, and Chinese families, and went into effect on very short notice. Uncertainty for what comes next is what those who were affected are left with.

Future of ESL

It seems too early to tell what the future of the ESL industry will look like. There is no evidence to suggest that China will be removing this policy anytime soon. Many teachers are turning to alternative online companies that either teach to children elsewhere in the world or that have adult students. However, the fact of the matter is that the demand for online ESL teachers is significantly lower outside of China and the job market is overly saturated with applicants. VIPKid has recently established their “Global Platform” which they claim will serve both adults and children across the world, yet most teachers seem to be skeptical of its success, according to discussions in teacher Facebook and Reddit groups. A small number of VIPKid teachers have already been invited to join the Global Platform, but bookings have been dismally low. One Reddit user writes, “I was invited to teach for the Global VIPKid, which I was excited about. Months have passed, they sent me 2 new contracts, which I signed, but still have zero bookings. I had a good following before the change and was teaching 4-5 mornings a week. Now, nothing.” Others remain optimistic that it will simply just take time for the online ESL industry to become better established in other countries.

Some online teachers remain optimistic about the longevity of their careers simply because of the spike in demand for online learning since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Even after schools have resumed in-person learning, many students have chosen to remain fully remote. Take Tutor Zone for example: the company transitioned to online tutoring in 2020 as a way to accommodate the circumstances of the pandemic. The new model proved to be a success and students are still using Tutor Zone’s online services from home, even if their schools are back in session. The company has been able to hire tutors who are located all across the United States, no longer restricted to the Southern California applicant pool. We may be at the beginning of a new era in education, and the world remains hopeful to see growth and innovation result in the years to come.


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