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What marketers should know about the Chinese education system

January 21, 2019 |   Dandan Cheng

Australia is one of the most coveted destinations for Chinese international students. In 2017, over 114,000 Chinese international students were hosted in Australia, making it the third most popular destination in the world.

Yet despite these students making up the Australian education sector’s most important demographic, relatively little is known about the education system from which they have come.

A deeper understanding of the Chinese education system – the largest education system in the world – is key in helping education marketers in high schools, language schools and universities develop a better awareness of these students, and identify marketing opportunities in the Chinese market.

Primary education

In China, students must complete 9 years of compulsory schooling, typically starting primary school at age 6. Prior to this, many children also attend preschool between the ages of 2–6, though this is not compulsory.

Most students spend 6 years in primary school (though school systems in some cities and provinces such as Shanghai, Ningbo, Shandong have a 5-year cycle), with around 60% of school time being dedicated to the “Big Two” subjects: Chinese and maths ( in Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities most students have Chinese, Maths, and English as their primary courses). Children are also instructed in music, art, morals and society, and nature, and also take practical work classes. Many also begin their English instruction during this time, with one teacher noting that ESL students are getting younger by the year.

While there’s no entrance examination at the end of primary school, Chinese students aren’t let off the hook, with anxious parents looking years ahead to the high school entrance exam and particularly university entrance exam known as Gaokao. Many primary school students, therefore, also participate in after-school tutoring and extracurricular activities, in order to give themselves the best chance of succeeding.

As one mother put it: “If life is like a marathon, we Chinese always try to win at the starting line.”

Secondary education

After primary school, students move on to junior secondary school, which lasts for 3 years (or 4 years in cities and provinces with a 5 year primary school systems), and completes the 9 years of compulsory schooling. After that, students can choose whether to continue their schooling (only about 10% of students opt not to continue), and, if so, whether they would prefer an academic or vocational track. Again, the majority opt for the former, with about 22% enrolling in vocational schools.

Competitiveness in the Chinese education system begins early. Before entering senior secondary school, students must undertake a public exam called Zhongkao, which determines which senior secondary school students will attend.

Senior secondary school also lasts for 3 years, and it will come as no surprise that this time is intensely focused on preparation for the Gaokao, a gruelling 9-hour exam (completed over two days), which takes place every year on 7th and 8th of June. Students of course face enormous stress and fierce competition during this time, as their performance on this exam will determine which universities they will be admitted to, which can in turn affect their careers beyond university. (In China, where you attend university is considered very important.)

And it’s not just the students who face big repercussions – the schools themselves are also measured by the number of students they send off to university. This means students are faced with intense pressure from all sides. Because of this stress, avoiding the Gaokao is in fact a significant factor in students opting to study overseas.

In the Gaokao, all students are tested on Chinese, maths and a foreign language (typically English, but students are now also given the option of taking Japanese, Russian, German, French or Spanish). Students must also choose between a social science concentration, where they will be tested on history, politics and geography, or a natural science concentration, where they will be tested on physics, chemistry and biology.

The exam is notoriously difficult and while around 75% of student successfully pass the exam, many choose to retake the Gaokao because they didn’t attain a score high enough to get into one of China’s top universities.

The Gaokao has been criticised by many for placing too much of an emphasis on rote learning, while doing little to cultivate critical and analytical thinking, as well as problem-solving skills – skills often necessary for success at university. There is evidence, however, that the government may be considering educational reform to address this shortcoming.

Tertiary education

Like in most other countries, students can earn a bachelor’s degree (which takes about 4 years to complete), before moving on to a master’s degree (earned in about 3 years) and finally a PhD.

There are 2000 universities and colleges in China, which cater for over 6 million students. The most prestigious of these is known as the C9 League, which includes:

● Fudan University

● Harbin Institute of Technology

● Nanjing University

● Peking University

● Shanghai Jiao Tong University

● Tsinghua University

● University of Science and Technology of China

● Xi’an Jiaotong University

● Zhejiang University

These institutions are also well respected internationally; indeed, according to the latest QS World University Rankings, Tsinghua University was ranked no. 17.

China is also becoming an international student hub in its own right. In 2017, it attracted 450,000 inbound international students, becoming the fourth most popular destination in the world.

This is on top of the steadily growing number of local students. In 2007, there were around 4.5 million university graduates; in 2017, that number was nearly 7.4 million – and the growth shows no sign of slowing.

While this has led to more higher education institutes being opened, it has also dramatically increased the competition for admission into Tier 1 universities, as well as for jobs after graduation, with growing rates of underemployment among graduates. Tier 1 universities also receive the lion’s share of government funding, raising concerns over the quality of lower-ranking institutions.

Understanding the culture and system within which Chinese students were raised can help marketers craft messaging that resonates with this target audience.

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