Sat, July 13

The Impact of China’s Teacher Surplus in 2024

Introduction to China’s Teacher Surplus

In 2024, the first ‘iron rice bowl’—a term used to describe a guaranteed and stable job—may be broken. Recently, there have been two significant announcements. One is from Beijing Normal University, which predicts that by 2035, there will be an excess of 1.5 million primary school teachers and 370,000 middle school teachers nationwide, indicating a critical aspect of China’s teacher surplus. The other news comes from Beijing’s Fengtai District, where measures are being studied to prevent teachers from underperforming. They are considering a system to reassign or dismiss teachers who fail evaluations or are absent from their positions. This is not just in Beijing; other regions like Ningbo in Zhejiang Province and Guiyang in Guizhou Province have also expressed intentions to explore similar mechanisms. This indicates that the era of teaching as a secure ‘iron rice bowl’ may truly be coming to an end.

Challenges in the Teaching Profession in China

Many people harbour illusions, thinking that as long as they have a formal position, they have basic security. But is this really the case? A glance at neighbouring Japan and South Korea makes it clear. In the summer of 2022, a high school in Seoul announced it would close due to a lack of students. Even more shocking, in June 2023, over 200 universities in Japan faced the threat of closure because they couldn’t attract enough students. From this, it’s clear to any discerning person that if there are no students and no schools, teachers cannot remain unaffected. This is like saying employees of a closed supermarket are unaffected, which obviously defies basic logic.

Therefore, it is necessary to set aside any resistance and examine the real situation. According to the data, when student enrollment decreases and schools face the threat of closure, Japan and South Korea have mainly adopted the following strategies for surplus teachers: The first strategy is straightforward for contract workers without formal positions; these teachers are simply dismissed, as contract workers generally lack security everywhere. The second strategy involves formally appointed teachers who will not be dismissed. Instead, larger classes are divided into smaller ones, changing from 50 students per class to just 25—a reform many teachers view as ideal. However, this strategy has its limitations: the number of students in a class cannot decrease indefinitely. Typically, when a class size reaches about fifteen students, it is considered the limit. Reducing it further would impose significant financial pressures on the school. Therefore, when class sizes become too small, most schools would not choose to have one teacher for just two students.

As for the one-on-one teaching that many people fantasize about, it is essentially a pipe dream due to the high costs involved. If implemented, the tuition fees would be transferred to the parents. Therefore, at this point, school leaders typically opt for the third plan: merging multiple schools. For example, if a county has eight towns and the student population in these towns is too low, all the schools in the towns would be closed and merged into the county’s schools, requiring teachers to relocate. At this stage, formally appointed teachers might start to sense something amiss. The county’s schools already have teachers, and now teachers from the towns are being transferred there as well. It’s impractical to have three or four teachers teaching mathematics to one class. So, generally, after schools merge, some teachers are forced to switch roles, either managing the library, switching from teaching mathematics to art, or being relocated to community centers to engage in social activities. Changes in teaching assignments are a likely scenario after such mergers.

Future Impact of China’s Teacher Surplus

In South Korea, there have been many bizarre cases, such as teachers being assigned to street cleaning or being sent to teach elderly students at senior citizen universities. Engaging in tasks unrelated to their primary profession, along with many teachers originally living in towns but now having to commute daily to the county, has led to prolonged separations from their families. Over time, this has resulted in an increasing number of teachers contemplating resignation. It’s intriguing how the ‘iron rice bowl’ still holds as the South Korean educational system hasn’t dismissed formally appointed staff, but gradually, positions are becoming vacant. However, this is specific to South Korea. Looking at the current situation in my country, it’s less likely for teachers to be reassigned to teach at senior citizen universities. It’s more probable that teachers will have to change their teaching subjects, as there is a severe surplus of language, mathematics, and English teachers domestically, while there is a shortage of teachers in arts, physical education, and science subjects.

Having discussed the potential future plans for teacher allocations, let’s now examine the specific timelines for changes in the teaching profession. When will there be an excess of elementary school teachers? When will middle and high schools start reducing positions? These are somewhat open secrets that can be easily verified, as the root cause of all these issues is the population. Take a recent news item, for example, which forecasts a surplus of 1.5 million primary school teachers by 2035. Have you ever wondered why this news broke in 2024? The reason is straightforward: this year marked a critical turning point in the number of primary school enrollments. Consider two sets of data: in 2017, the birth rate in China was 17.23 million, but by 2018, it dropped to 15.23 million—a decline of two million in just one year. Typically, children start elementary school at six years old. Based on this timeline, by 2024, there will be a significant reduction in primary school enrollments, leading to decreased admissions in elementary schools nationwide this year.

Broader Social and Economic Implications

Following this basic logic, further reasoning about the turning point for middle school enrollments shows that by 2030, there will be a clear shortage of students entering middle schools nationwide, similarly affecting high schools by 2033, universities by 2036, and the job market by 2040. Around 2050, there will also be a new turning point in the number of marriages. Society is fundamentally composed of people, and population issues are at the root of many societal problems. Therefore, as the population begins to decline, a very complete transmission chain will appear across society, starting with obstetrics, followed by postnatal care centers, and then moving to related products like baby formula and diapers. This progression continues through kindergartens, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, universities, and graduate programs, eventually impacting employment. All this information can be inferred. Under such circumstances, if one still insists on pursuing a non-tenured teaching degree, that would be truly delusional. This situation further highlights the critical issue of China’s teacher surplus as it reshapes the future of education and employment.