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Lessons of the Future

What will China’s falling birth rate mean for the education sector, from primary to higher education? Education specialist Qiao Jinzhong discusses the scenarios with NewsChina

By Huo Siyi , Li Jinjin Updated Jul.1

Kindergarteners show off their freshly dyed eggs, Southeast Qian Autonomous Prefecture of Miao and Dong, Guizhou Province, February 21, 2023 (Photo by IC)

A woman feeds a child a snack at Qianmen, a popular tourist spot in Beijing, January 17, 2023. In 2022, China announced its first population decline in decades (photo by VCG)

Influenced by the declining birth rate, fewer children are enrolling in kindergarten, forcing many preschools to attract students rather than relying on parents’ desire to vie for places in the previously competitive education sector.  

A temporary birth boom in 2016 and 2017, due to China’s relaxed birth control policy that allowed couples to have two children, has strained elementary schools, which children start at age 6. However, since 2018, the birth rate has plummeted. According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), China’s population in 2022 shrank by 850,000, marking the first decline in six decades. Qiao Jinzhong, a professor at the Institute for Higher Education at Beijing Normal University and a member of the Chinese Society of Educational Development Strategy, discussed the impact of the declining birth rate on the education sector.  

NewsChina: China entered an era of population decline in 2022, which implies a reduced need for schools as the birth rate drops. How will this affect demand for education resources across age groups?  

Qiao Jinzhong: The replacement level for a population requires a fertility rate (the number of children each couple have) of 2.1 or above, but China’s fertility rate had already fallen to around 2 as early as the 1990s. The “second child” policy implemented in 2016 was not as effective as expected, and since 2017, the number of new births began to drop by 2 million each year. Such a constant drop is generally irreversible.  

There are now empty beds in hospital gynecology departments and kindergartens are shifting to poaching students from each other. The preschool sector is worst hit right now, but in the long run, the compulsory education sector (6-15 years old) will see the heaviest impact.  

Based on our team’s model which forecasts changes in the number enrolled in compulsory education from 2020-2035, we predict a slow initial increase in students, peaking at 146 million in 2024, followed by a rapid decline. From 2025-2028, the average number of students in compulsory education will drop by 1-2 million annually, expanding to 3-4 million in the next five years. Demand for elementary school places will peak by 2024, about 4.85 million more than in 2020, while demand for junior high schools will peak in 2029. By 2035, the cohort of school-age students in the compulsory education phase will drop to 110 million, around 30 million less than in 2021. Our model assumes a total fertility rate of 1.5. However, the actual rate in 2021 was 1.15, suggesting even lower figures than predicted.  

NC: If the number of students drops by at least 30 million, will we need fewer schools?  

QJ: In fact, the number of compulsory education schools has been declining since 2003, with an accelerated drop expected between 2020 and 2035. Our projection shows that by 2035, the need for elementary schools and junior high schools will decrease to 92,800 and 47,900 respectively, a drop of 51,400 and 3,800 from 2020. It is obvious that the population decline will impact elementary schools more than junior high schools, since they are distributed more densely to cover nearby communities.  

NC: So in 12 years, the number of elementary schools is likely to halve. What kind of schools will be the first to close?  

QJ: Elementary schools in areas where the population is declining most severely will be the first to go. Private schools in regions where there are more students in private school than public, likely due to local governments’ weak financial status, are also at risk.  

However, the central government is guiding and supervising local authorities to fulfill their legal responsibility to provide compulsory education [for all]. When the demand-supply relationship radically changes, private schools unable to recruit enough students will go bankrupt and the best out of the remaining schools will gradually shift to smaller classes enabling them to focus more attention on each student. This shift, actually common in countries experiencing a population plunge, is helpful to improve teaching quality.  

NC: As Japan’s birth rate has declined since the 1980s, the country shifted to a more relaxed education approach, with elementary schools embracing experiential learning. Chinese students still compete fiercely in each educational phase. Will China follow Japan’s steps as the demand-supply relationship in education changes?  

QJ: Very likely, enrolling in [good] schools will become easier and they will become more relaxed. They will focus on knowledge rather than exams or rankings. The shift could improve education quality without forcing every student to participate in this competition for places [in good schools].  

But we must consider that as supply and demand changes, it is very important to choose the right time to change the criteria of opening new schools. Local governments should consider both the future number of school-age students and local conditions. Changes to criteria of closing or opening schools should be avoided during years when we already know there will be big demand shifts for schools. There should be flexibility built in to ensure the supply is stable with some redundancy to prevent waste of resources. If we establish too many schools when demand peaks, they will just become redundant when the school-age population declines.  

NC: How will reducing the number of schools influence teachers?  

QJ: As the number of school-age students changes, the demand for teachers in compulsory education will decrease between 2020 and 2035. Based on the present ratio of students to teachers, by 2034, we’ll have 1.5 million surplus elementary school teachers and 370,000 redundant junior middle school teachers.  

Elementary schools will face bigger and earlier waves of redundancy than junior high schools, which will first experience a shortage of teachers. To respond to this, we have to cut class sizes, lower student-teacher ratios and gradually cut enrollment at teacher training colleges for students without undergraduate degrees. These colleges should expand admission for courses in music, PE, the arts, vocational trade courses, general technologies and special needs education, and reduce language and math admissions. China’s current teacher supply is already imbalanced – we have too many Chinese and math teachers, but a shortage in PE, the arts and sciences.  

NC: Will changes in the number of school-age students and demand for teachers greatly differ between rural and urban areas?  

QJ: Despite the decrease in school-age students, China will continue to urbanize. According to our forecast, the urbanization rate of students is over 10 percent higher than that of the total population. In other words, although some adults may not live in urban areas, their children will study there. We predict that by 2031, school-age students in urban areas will exceed those in rural areas, and the gap will remain thereafter. This will be a turning point. After 2031, the focus of China’s compulsory education system will shift to urban education, with cities hosting around 10 million more school-age students than rural areas by 2035. Yet, this timeline varies by region – first in developed regions before 2031 and later in poorer central and western regions. So, we must allocate resources based on local conditions.  

Rural elementary student numbers will plunge sharply by around 674,500 annually between 2020 and 2035. This means a sharp decrease in village elementary schools to around 35,500 by 2035, less than half the number in 2020.  

As a result, many rural education resources will be redundant. So after these areas are no longer impoverished, we should not invest too heavily in rural education, except for small schools with larger funding to ensure children there have sufficient access to quality education. 

As a whole, resources should be tilted toward urban areas, where school-age students will be concentrated in the next 15 years. Based on our projection, we’ll need an estimated 4,000 new elementary schools by 2026 (the peak year) and 4,000 new junior high schools in 2030 (the peak year) in urban areas. This means the urban education budget should be much bigger than for rural areas. The budget is expected to increase by 55.53 billion yuan (US$7.9b) annually between 2020-2035. As education resources shift, we must recognize the increasing movement of students to urban areas, and ensure high-quality education for most students.  

NC: The change in population structure will influence higher education. In Japan, many private higher education institutions compete to enroll students by lowering entry standards. Chinese higher education is dominated by public schools, so what will happen when there are fewer students?  

QJ: We’ll probably experience the same as Japan. The higher education sector will shrink, so lower-quality institutions or schools that offer a similar curriculum will close or merge with other schools. When the number of higher education schools decreases, so will their size. Mega universities like Jilin University, Shandong University and Zhejiang University (with more than 10,000 students) will become fewer and their net enrollment rates will increase. Although China’s higher education sector is dominated by public universities, with only a few top institutions, competition between universities will become fiercer.  

But this encourages improvement in quality. With fewer students and more options, higher education institutions will be motivated to innovate. Currently, top universities in China lack the motivation to change. Students of regular majors (like business studies) don’t want to do research, and providers of majors like science and engineering aren’t responsive to labor market changes.  

The decline in student numbers will create a buyer’s market for higher education. Faced with dwindling tuition fees and fiscal support, colleges will be forced to differentiate themselves and focus on their strengths.  

China’s hasty expansion of university enrollment since 1998 to promote higher education has aggravated a structural imbalance. Based on international experience, higher education in subjects like engineering and medicine and even teaching should be an elite education. We now have too many low-quality schools in these areas. We don’t really need so many colleges for academic studies – we need more to focus on technical and practical subjects to help students find jobs.  

With fewer college students in the future, there will be more employment-oriented colleges to enable more cooperation between students and enterprises. Most universities will provide more employment-oriented courses to meet demand.  

Besides, many college students actually only spend three years studying, with the fourth year doing internships. Many students in majors with higher academic standards like math and physics will find it difficult to pass the degree. With a lower birth rate and sharper competition among colleges, it is crucial they improve their teaching quality and build internal quality supervision mechanisms. The government should follow this shift and guide such competition to enhance the overall structure and quality of China’s higher education.