China’s largest private education provider laid off 60,000 employees last year as it grappled with fallout from Beijing’s sweeping overhaul of the industry.
Yu Minhong — the billionaire founder of New Oriental Education — confirmed the massive shakeup in a post on his WeChat account over the weekend, adding the company encountered “too many changes in 2021.” He blamed the layoffs on “policies, the pandemic and international relations.”
Yu’s post lays out starkly the consequences for private enterprise in China as Beijing took major steps to curb what it saw as unruly business practices.
New York-listed Oriental — China’s largest private education company by market capitalization — was one of the most high-profile casualties of the widespread restrictions imposed on the country’s $120 billion private tutoring sector, as it reeled from rules announced in July that banned for-profit, after-school tutoring services and restricted such companies from making profits or raising capital.
Regulators said at the time that excessive tutoring had overwhelmed children and placed too much of a financial burden on parents, all while exacerbating social inequality.
Since those restrictions were announced, authorities have ordered those education businesses to suspend online and offline tutoring classes.
New Oriental, famous for its after-school tutoring services, had more than 88,000 full-time employees and about 17,000 contract teachers and staff as of May, according to its latest annual report.
It was not clear whether contract workers were among the 60,000 let go, but the figure accounts for roughly two-thirds of New Oriental’s full-time staff last year.
In another post late Monday, Yu clarified that the company still has about 50,000 teachers and staff after the layoffs.
After Yu’s post drew wide attention, New Oriental said that the post did not “represent the views of the company.” In a filing to the Hong Kong stock exchange late Monday, the company said it was reviewing its latest financial results and would update the market at a later time.
The firm also spent nearly 20 billion yuan ($3.1 billion) last year in refunding prepaid tuition to customers, compensating employees that were laid off, and surrendering leases for learning sites across the country, according to Yu.
He added that revenue fell 80% while its market capitalization shrank 90%. New Oriental lost some $28 billion in market value in 2021.
The private tutoring ban shocked parents and left many businesses struggling. It also triggered a sharp selloff of Chinese education companies in New York and Hong Kong: In late July, Goldman Sachs estimated that the regulations wiped out $77 billion from the market value of overseas-listed Chinese tutoring companies within a week.
That was a sudden reversal of fortune for those companies, which had been stock market darlings in recent years and attracted billions of dollars in funding from investors like Tiger Global Management and SoftBank Group.
It’s not yet clear how many total jobs were eliminated because of the crackdown. Former education official Wang Wenzhan said last July, though, that there are nearly a million institutions in the country focused on after-school tutoring, employing about 10 million people. In December, the Ministry of Education announced that authorities had shut down 84% of the country’s online and offline after-school tutoring institutions.
But policymakers are clearly concerned about rising unemployment, as widespread job losses could lead to unrest and induce instability.
Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua on Monday called for stronger efforts to keep employment stable, according to state-owned Xinhua.
“[We need] be more active in doing a good job to ensure the overall stability of employment,” he told a group of leading employment officials at a State Council meeting.
For the few survivors, life might still be difficult. Yu acknowledged in his post that New Oriental emerged from the last six months “with great difficulty.”
The entrepreneur, who founded New Oriental in 1993, said the company has fully closed its tutoring operations for core school subjects. Next, it will focus on teaching other subjects — commonly music or sports, which are not part of the core curriculum in China — providing tutoring services for college students, and offering Chinese courses in overseas markets.
New Oriental has also set up an e-commerce live-streaming platform that is focused on selling agricultural products, Yu said.
“Work hard, study hard, and try to find new directions,” he added. “These should be my three main themes for 2022.”
TAL Education (TAL), another Chinese tutoring giant, announced in November it would shift its focus from teaching school curricula from kindergarten to ninth grade, and instead tutor other subjects, such as music and sports. It also wants to expand operations overseas.