Following the 720 policy to regulate private tutoring sector, the Chinese Ministry of Education (MoE) has issued further notice to define core academic subject tutoring vs. extra-curriculum as these two will be regulated very differently. An expert with a Ministry of Education background has suggested new directions for tutoring companies. This blog translates the items most relevant to ESL teachers for Chinese students (online and in-person) along with an analysis of what these policies do not specify – these are areas open for ESL tutors to interpret.

Academic subjects vs. extra-curriculum subjects

The 720 policy requires that academic subject tutoring companies need to register as non-profit organisations and will be strictly regulated. They can’t take up students’ weekends and holiday time.

These regulations don’t apply to companies that provide extra-curriculum activities such as sports coaching, piano coaching, etc.

On July 28, 2021, MoE published a further note defining what academic subjects exactly include. These definitions apply to both in-person and online tutoring, says the note.

  • Academic subjects include ethics and law, Chinese language, history, geography, math, and foreign languages (English, Japanese, Russian), physics, chemistry and biology. They will be regulated under the academic subject tutoring category.
  • Physical education (or well-being), art (or music, or drawing) and integrated practical activities (information technology education, labour and technical education) are extra-curriculum subjects. Therefore, they are to be monitored under a different category.

An expert’s suggestion for adaptation


On 15th July, Wen Zhan WANG, a former senior staff member from the Ministry of Education spoke about his interpretation of the recent policies during the 2021 China Internet Education Conference. His key message is that private tutoring companies need to keep the faith and adapt.

The government wants to regulate the tutoring industry not to shut it down, he suggested.

Recognising the tutoring industry’s role in enriching students’ lives, meeting personalised needs from parents and students, cultivating hobbies and broadening students’ horizon, he suggested that it’s hard to have one single, indiscriminate criterion to judge all companies. It is also valuable to use tutoring services to help students catch up if they are behind.

He encourages the tutoring companies to transform from teaching academic subjects to developing these three areas:

  • Serve public education
  • Serve children’s healthy growth
  • Serve parents (it is not clear what he means by this)

His speech suggests there are plenty of opportunities in these three areas:

  • Educational projects that promote traditional Chinese culture, such as learning through travel; practical training/community immersion; reading, little journalists, little public speakers, etc.
  • Training in science, technology and information technology: coding, artificial intelligence, brain development, etc.
  • Craftwork and invention: to foster students’ physical skills, critical and scientific thinking, and innovation.
  • Art and physical education, aesthetic education.
  • Vocational training, especially skills training for agricultural workers.
  • Training for teachers and school leaders.

What the policy doesn’t say

• What the policy does not indicate is the status of teaching extra-curriculum activities using English. If teaching English language is considered as tutoring an academic subject, what about teaching physical education through English? That is an unknown area.

• If hiring non-Chinese teachers outside China is prohibited, it’s unclear what companies should do with free-lancing teachers. Technically, platforms such as VIPKid does not hire any ESL teachers in a full-time capacity. The teachers are not considered as employees of the company.

• It does not say whether tutors can or cannot accept 1-1 tutoring bookings. As a result of this ambiguity, some private tutors saw their bookings increase by 30%. Some tutors have raised their 1-1 tutoring fee as a result.

• The policy does not mention products using interactive recorded learning materials. For those, students can choose their own time and ways to engage with recorded materials, which makes it hard to supervise and restrict.

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Adapt for a different future

The past decades have seen very competitive dynamics in China’s K-12 online ESL education market. The competition is so fierce that a company spends on average about RMB4000 (US$620/£400) to get a new customer.

The latest policies, curbing the supply side of education, do not address the demand side. Some parents have contacted the customer services of tutoring companies, asking them to tutor parents themselves so that they can teach their children at home.

We are facing a market with abundant demand. But, it remains unclear who is there to fulfill it.


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