The number of newborn babies in China has gone into free fall since 2017, with births plunging by more than 500,000 last year to slightly over 9 million.

The number of children attending kindergartens also saw its first decline in nearly two decades in 2021, while primary school students fell in 2022 for the first time in a decade, according to the Ministry of Education.

“With fewer students, there will inevitably be redundancies at schools within a certain period or a certain region,” said Chu Zhaohui, a senior researcher at the China National Academy of Educational Sciences.

But the extent of the impact largely depends on what authorities do in the coming years, he said.

“According to my field research, because of their financial burdens, local governments will absolutely recruit fewer teachers this year,” Chu added.

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China posts record-low birth rate despite government push for babies

China posts record-low birth rate despite government push for babies

Local authorities are under growing fiscal pressure as a crisis in the real estate industry – their most important source of income – has shown no sign of abating, and other challenges including weak domestic and external demand hold back the post-pandemic recovery of the world’s second-largest economy.

The education department in central China’s Hunan province issued a directive in November urging for a better allocation of education resources over the next five to 10 years based on birth rate, urbanisation and the number of school-aged children.

Over the past year, a series of other local governments, such as in Shandong and Sichuan, have announced plans to no longer offer major degree programmes related to education at certain universities and colleges to curb the supply of teachers.

Amid great popularity for such programmes, driven by a “teaching craze” in the past couple of years, “many local governments have taken the initiative to ‘cool down’ the fervour through the adjustment of majors, which is particularly worthy of attention,” said a report by human resources research firm MyCOS in January.

The number of compulsory education schools across the country has been decreasing since 2003, and this trend will continue from 2020 to 2035

Qiao Jinzhong

Chinese schools have, for decades, been crowded with children, with as many as 50 students in one class in some urban areas and around 30 in most rural areas.

And if classes remain at the same levels, there will be a surplus of 1.5 million primary school teachers and 370,000 middle school teachers by 2035, according to research by a team led by Qiao Jinzhong, an education professor at Beijing Normal University.

“The number of compulsory education schools across the country has been decreasing since 2003, and this trend will continue from 2020 to 2035, with the pace of decline gradually accelerating,” he told China’s Newsweek magazine in February last year.

Besides efforts to merge schools to concentrate resources, the shrinking number of schools is also being driven by downward pressure on student numbers.

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In 2021, the number of children at kindergarten witnessed the first fall since 2003, followed by another drop of 3.7 per cent in 2022.

In 2022, the total number of pupils at primary schools also dropped for the first time since 2013, falling by 478,800 from a year earlier to 107 million.

The trend may prompt public schools to reduce class sizes to avoid lay-offs, which would also allow teachers to increase the time they spend with each student, said Maggie Chen, who has been a teacher in Zhejiang province for nearly two decades.

“But things may be much crueler at private schools, which have greater financial pressure and already have small classes. There will be a big possibility of lay-offs,” she said.

It is of great significance to promote the upgrading of rural teachers through quantitative elimination as soon as possible

Huang Bin

According to Huang Bin, a professor at Nanjing University’s Institute of Education, declining demand in teaching resources is not a bad thing, especially for remote schools where teachers are often poorly trained and lack development opportunities.

“Many teachers have relatively low skill levels, especially those in rural schools,” he said. “It is of great significance to promote the upgrading of rural teachers through quantitative elimination as soon as possible.”

It is a chance for China to improve the quality of its education, which is crucial to realising Beijing’s ambition of talent dividend – a notion referring to a better-educated workforce – that is expected to provide a strong impetus for economic growth despite being smaller.

Fewer children would also mean less competition for schools, which may ease anxiety for parents and stress for students, Huang added.

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“[In the long run,] as the number of children decreases, there might be a wave of mergers of colleges and universities, and the gaps between these institutions might narrow. This may help to relieve the widespread anxiety over the college entrance exams,” he added
Despite a sweeping crackdown on private tutoring in 2021 to ease the burdens on students and improve educational equality, a majority of parents remain stressed about their children’s education.

According to a survey by online technology news platform youth36kr in May, over 72 per cent of 535 parents polled expressed high levels of anxiety, rating it above five on a scale of 10.

This is not only putting intense pressure on children, resulting in physical and psychological problems, but also contributing to a perceived growing reluctance to raise children despite the government’s push for more births.