Does Singapore really need Chinese enrichment?

The biggest news last month is China’s crackdown on the private tuition sector, prompting renewed discussion on Singapore’s own enrichment sector, and leaving many parents and educators wondering if Singapore is next?

In this post, we discuss why China is cracking down on the private education market and whether Singapore really needs Chinese enrichment?

WHY IS CHINA CRACKING DOWN ON THE PRIVATE EDUCATION MARKET?

In end July, China announced strict regulations on the private education, including forcing education firms to convert to nonprofit status and banning tutoring during weekends and holidays. 

To fully understand the situation, one must understand how investment has changed China’s education market. For more details, I highly recommend watching this Chinese video.

In the past, China’s education market was more akin to Singapore’s current system, with a single teacher teaching in a physical classroom. Such a system was limited by both quality teachers and classroom sizes, and did not attract much interest from large investors.

TWO-TEACHER SYSTEM

Everything changed when education companies introduced the 双师 or two-teacher system, where you have a superstar teacher that streams to multiple classrooms, and each classroom has an assistant teacher to handle questions, marking, etc. The two-teacher system meant the private education market could benefit from economies of scale since a superstar tutor could now reach thousands of students at one shot.

Source: https://edtechchina.medium.com/two-teacher-system-the-new-model-for-the-education-training-market-in-china-63da97df0d4b

This attracted the attention and capital of deep-pocketed investors such as China’s tech behemoths Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent. Flush with cash and amidst the COVID-19 situation, educational companies became increasingly aggressive in their marketing efforts, with ads allegedly like “Did you include your child’s future in your shopping cart” or “If you don’t sign up for enrichment, we will nurture your child’s competitor instead”.

And thus the crackdown, purportedly to increase fertility rates to counter China’s major demographic challenge of an aging population as well as to reduce the rising gap between the haves and have-nots.

💡Interesting Note: Just like China, Singapore is also facing a tremendous demographic challenge – our total fertility rate dropped to a historic low of 1.10 in 2020, way below the replacement rate of 2.1. I believe should China successfully reverse its low fertility rate by curbing tuition, curbs on our local enrichment industry are highly likely.

A MISSION TO HELP THE NEXT GENERATION OF CHILDREN

Do our children really need Chinese enrichment?

The short answer: it depends on us parents. A child can definitely excel in Chinese without enrichment as long as parents spend sufficient effort building a conducive environment.

On the flip side, if we parents don’t regularly communicate and teach our children Chinese, it could be difficult for them to become fluent in Chinese as there are much fewer opportunities for children to pick up the language organically compared to the past.

For instance, in our previous post, we talked about how in 2000, a mere 1 in 3 children spoke mainly English at home; fast forward 20 years, nearly 4 in 5 children speak English most frequently. In primary school, most students use Chinese only during Mother Tongue classes, and switch back to English immediately after.

For many such parents, Chinese enrichment is not so much a nice-to-have vitamin but a necessary pain-killer to prevent their children from hating and failing Chinese.

CHINESE ENRICHMENT TENDS TO BE CHEAPER

At the same time, while many news reports focus on the eye-popping fees of some enrichment centres, they often overlook that Chinese enrichment tends to be significantly cheaper compared to English, Mathematics and Science (EMS).

The Singaporean enrichment market is typically broken down into the EMS and Chinese segments, with the majority of enrichment centres specialising in either one or the other. Enrichment centres that do both tend to brand them separately (e.g. Julia Gabriel + Chengzhu, Tien Hsia + Morris Allen) or provide different price points.

Comparing both mid-range and high-end centres, Chinese enrichment tends to be significantly cheaper compared to EMS enrichment. A mid-range Chinese enrichment tends to charge between $20-25/hour* for P6 classes compared to $30+ for EMS.

Meanwhile, high-end EMS enrichment centres that promise stellar results charge up to $50/hr, while there’s not really an equivalent** in the Chinese market. For instance, Wang Lao Shi and HCL are typically considered to be among the most academic of Chinese centres, and their fees are roughly $25-30/hour, much lower than their EMS equivalent.

*Quick note on methodology: some EMS centres lower the upfront price tag by offering shorter terms (e.g. 11 lessons vs 12) or shorter lesson durations. I’ve chosen to compare prices on an hourly basis since I believe it’s the fairest method.

**There are some Chinese enrichment centres that are that are more expensive, but they tend to cater to a more niche audience (e.g. international students)

CHINESE ENRICHMENT DOES HAVE ITS PROBLEMS

That’s not to say the Chinese enrichment industry is blameless, for it has accentuated the difference between those that attend classes vs those who don’t.

Consider Hanyu Pinyin (HYPY). Officially, the teaching of HYPY is supposed to start in primary school. While many government affiliated childcares and kindergartens do not teach HYPY, most private childcares and kindergartens as well as Chinese enrichment do teach it.

This pressures many parents who enroll their kids in government affiliated preschools to seek out enrichment or holiday camps to ensure their children won’t fall behind in P1, causing a vicious cycle.

THE BENEFITS OF BILINGUALISM

Despite the above, I believe the upsides of having enrichment to promote excellence in Chinese greatly outweigh the downsides, because of the importance of being bilingual.

Cultural and heritage factors are obviously important plus-factors when it comes to learning our Mother Tongue. But as a pragmatic Singaporean, let’s also talk about the practical benefits of our kids being effectively bilingual (aka actually being able to communicate and work in Chinese, not just being able to pass an examination). 

China is projected to become the biggest economy in 2028 (5 years ahead of schedule), is currently our biggest trading partner, and we are also China’s biggest foreign investor. At the same time, given Singapore’s neutral geopolitical stance, there’s a trend towards large Chinese companies setting up regional offices here. Personally, my wife is from Taiwan, and works in a Fortune 500 company that targets China from Singapore, and there are many large companies in the same boat.

We strongly believe in an ever-changing world, giving our children the gift of bilingualism is the best way to ensure their future. Yet while China grow increasing important, the climate for our kids to learn Chinese organically grows increasing difficult.

Therefore, in my arguably biased opinion, considering the lower cost of Chinese enrichment as well as the importance of bilingualism, there is a lot of value in having the option of Chinese enrichment for Singaporean parents who have neither the time nor ability to coach their children.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: