Five things you need to know about education in China

China’s education landscape is large and complex. Here’s an insider view on what you need to know to operate here – and meet the changing expectations for international education amongst Chinese students.

1. Education is vital to Chinese culture

Education is deeply embedded in the cultural fabric of Chinese society. In fact, its prominent role dates back as early as 700AD, where exams were used as the sole criteria to appoint government officials.

Of course, education’s profound influence can be traced even earlier to the 5th Century BC –  when Confucius set up China’s feudal education system. A firm believer in bringing education to the masses, his philosophy has become fundamentally entrenched within Chinese culture. And to this day, Chinese children are taught Confucian values of self-improvement, centred in academic achievement and discipline.

2. Parents are prepared to spend

There’s an old saying in China: ‘再苦不能苦孩子’. It translates to ‘however bitter or challenging life may be, one must not pass it onto their children.’

Parents rich and poor are willing to invest significantly to improve prospects for the next generation, with research suggesting Chinese families spend up to 21% of their total income on education.[1] The competitive mindset surrounding rankings is influencing this high spend. Examination results are perceived as the largest driver of upward social mobility as they provide wider choice to better ranked institutions.

3. Rank and result means everything

Education’s cultural importance has bred a competitive landscape among students in contemporary China, with its large population and recent economic growth placing considerable pressure on younger generations to get ahead and access enormous financial opportunities.

Today, Chinese families are prioritising education from a younger age, with many parents enrolling their children in tuition from as early as age three. And it’s no surprise. Not only does the Chinese education system publicly rank students from primary school onwards, ingraining a competitive mindset, students are competing for extremely limited opportunities – with the top C9 universities only selecting 50,000 candidates from an annual examination undertaken by nearly ten million.[2]

4. Prestige matters

Brand recognition, reputation and peer feedback are highly important to Chinese parents choosing an institution for their children. This elevation of prestige in education reflects a wider societal perception that expensive, premium brands are generally of a higher-quality. But it’s also a symptom of an unwillingness to take the risk of trialling an ‘unproven’ or ‘unrecognised’ institution, teacher or product – particularly because education is such an important cultural pillar in Chinese society.

The traditional Chinese concept of ‘face’ (面子) is another reason why reputation matters to Chinese parents. ‘Face’, similar to dignity or prestige, is extremely important to Chinese families – and they’re willing to spend time and money ensuring they preserve it.

5. It pays to study abroad

In China, many households view international experience and language capabilities as a vital method to improving employability – at home and abroad. This is due to a perception that western education provides a more well-rounded and balanced alternative to the academically-competitive environment in China. Studying abroad in an English speaking country is a way of demonstrating good spoken English language. In turn this is understood as the key to swift career-advancement.

In 2017, almost 900,000 Chinese tertiary students were studying abroad. And with over 250,000 students enrolled in international schools in 2017, and that number estimated to grow at a rate of 10 % each year, the preference towards international education is clear to see.[3]


Attitudes towards education will of course vary widely across Chinese households, with different regions, cultures, and incomes to take into account. However, it’s important to understand the underlying motivations, pressures and expectations of your target market – because only then can you tailor your education offer to meet their needs.

Read more about international education trends in China on Navitas Insights, or follow Victor’s continuing analysis of the market on the Navitas Ventures blog.


[1] JMDedu, 2018.

[2] L.E.K. Consulting, 2018.

[3] Deloitte China, 2018.

About The Author

Victor Zhang is a Navitas Venture Scout and social entrepreneur passionate about building organisations that empower people. His previous experiences span social enterprises, technology startups and venture capital across the APAC. Victor previously spent 2 years as an associate with Navitas Ventures before moving to Asia to explore the world’s largest education market. He previously co-founded Generation Entrepreneur, Australia’s leading entrepreneurship program for high school students. He also the co-founder of Jellybean Lab, the marketing agency behind Australia’s largest student social media communities with over 400,000 active students. Victor was named a ‘Young Social Pioneer’ by the Foundation for Young Australians and was awarded a New Colombo Plan scholarship by the Australian Foreign Minister to work and study across the Indo-Pacific.

You don't have permission to register