Ru xiang sui su – when entering the village, follow its customs. So runs the Chinese proverb. Ever since China entered the global village in 1979, it has followed one global custom with particular enthusiasm: learning the English language.

This week, however, it began to follow it less enthusiastically. The English language section of the gaokao, China’s national university entrance exam, was downsized. The move will delight many – but what about the country’s Rmb30bn ($5bn) English teaching industry?

Under this week’s measure, English language sections of the gaokao will earn 100 points rather than 150 previously, while Chinese sections will be boosted from 150 points to 180.

That will go down well with some Chinese politicians who have criticised what they say is a disproportionate focus on a foreign language. Zhang Shuhua, a member of China’s top political advisory body, the CPPCC, called it an “over-emphasis” in March and said the system was impractical.

Private English schools, however, may be less pleased. The heavy weighting of English in the gaokao means that parents have been willing to spend heavily on expensive private schools to boost their children’s prospects. Will a lower weighting for English mean they will be happy to spend less?

English is an unavoidable subject for Chinese students, even for those who excel in sciences but struggle with languages. Given the life-defining power of the gaokao, parents and students are keen to acquire not just private lessons but often hi-tech teaching-aid gadgets to boost their chances.

According to China’s education ministry, there are 50,000 companies offering Engliah language training in the country, many focused on young students.

Private English lessons can be prohibitively expensive. English First, a leading provider of extra-curricular English, charges up to Rmb16,000 (£1,630) for a year of classes. Compare that with China’s average annual salary of Rmb13,000.

Yet high prices have not deterred customers. New Oriental, the country’s largest provider of private English tuition, is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and has a market cap of $4.4bn. Its business has boomed in China’s post-Olympic era: its net income rose from $61m in 2009 to $136m in the year ended May 2013.

Trimming the English element of the gaokao would seem to put such earnings at risk. But language schools may gain in other areas.

For example, many more Chinese students are studying abroad. In the 2010/11 academic year, 67,325 Chinese students studied in the UK, up 43 per cent on the 47,035 who did so in 2009/09. Winning a place in an English-speaking university means first passing English proficiency tests. The growing market for expatriate study may well make up any revenues lost from reform of the gaokao.

Private schools may be further insulated by the rising numbers of Chinese travelling abroad. The World Tourism Organisation predicted last year that Chinese tourists would make 100m trips abroad in 2020. And an increasingly globalised business world means many older Chinese professionals are eager to pay for English lessons.

It also means global companies are targeting English students at an ever-younger age. Walt Disney became the first western media company to operate schools in China in 2008, when it set up an English language schools programme aimed at children aged one to 11. It now has 43 centres in 10 cities across China.

So there is more to the English tuition business than the gaokao. Parents who spend at private schools are not just buying educational opportunities – they are buying into a globalised world.

Related reading:
China: Foreign values, FT
Who owns English in a global market? FT
UK schools expand their operations abroad, FT

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