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China needs to recalibrate its educational system amid demographic shift

The government could seize this opportunity to initiate reforms aimed at enhancing education quality through reducing class sizes.

By NewsChina Updated Jun.1

    China's total population at the end of 2023 decreased by 2.08 million compared to the previous year, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. In 2022, China's population declined for the first time in 60 years, shrinking by 850,000. With declining birth rates, this accelerated population decline may become the norm in the coming years or even decades, posing challenges across all sectors of Chinese society. 
    For China's educational system, the most immediate change will be a fundamental shift in the supply-demand relationship in education. In 2023, provincial authorities already begin reducing future enrollment quotas for teacher training institutions. This may be jumping the gun, as the government must recognize the challenges posed by the historic demographic shift to the educational system require a comprehensive and nuanced approach.  
    First, the decline in the overall population will not immediately translate to a decrease in the school-age population. China only fully lifted restrictions on families to allow them to have two children in 2016, and there was a temporary uplift in the birth rate in the following years. 
The first cohort of second children only entered primary school in 2023, leading to soaring demand for enrollment in primary schools. For several years, the demand for places in primary, secondary and high schools could still rise. For instance, in Beijing, it is estimated that college enrollment will peak in 2035. 
    Second, as China's urbanization continues to grow, the gap in the school-age population between urban and rural areas, and between more advanced and less developed regions will inevitably widen. The government should begin now to evaluate the demand for educational resources across the country's regions to develop a long-term strategy to address the ongoing demographic transformation. 
    Third, instead of reducing the number of teachers, the government could seize this opportunity to initiate reforms aimed at enhancing education quality through reducing class sizes. Over the past decades, China has primarily concentrated on ensuring the accessibility of basic education, particularly in rural areas. The declining birth rate is a chance to refocus on the quality of the education system.  
    Fourth, China needs to reform the disciplinary structure of its education system. In response to the challenges posed by an aging population and potential labor shortages, China has prioritized innovation as a driver of future economic growth. To achieve this goal, China must reform its teacher training system. Teacher training institutions have not been able to respond adequately to technological advances and are relatively weak in the fields of engineering and IT. The government should implement national-level reforms to the teacher training system to encourage universities specializing in relevant disciplines to play an active role in cultivating teacher talent. 
    Finally, the calls are increasing to extend the length of compulsory education from 9 to 12 years. Historically, a significant barrier to inducing senior high school in compulsory education was China's large student population and insufficient financial resources. However, with China's rapid economic development and the expected decline in the school-age population, it may be feasible for China to contemplate extending the duration of compulsory education. 
    Overall, the demographic transformation presents both challenges and opportunities. The gradual decline in population poses problems and provides an opportunity for China to reform and recalibrate its education system to enhance the country's economic vitality and social well-being.