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Jack Ma Takes Shot at Boosting China’s Education System

By Wu Di, Chen Shaoyan and Pan Che

(Beijing) — After revolutionizing e-commerce, Jack Ma says he has now set his sights on improving China’s problem-riddled education system.

The Chinese billionaire and founder of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. has set up an experimental private bilingual school named Yungu, or Cloud Valley, in Hangzhou’s upscale Xi Hu (West Lake) district. The school offers classes from kindergarten (preschool) through senior high.

Ma’s investment of an undisclosed sum comes at a time when Chinese authorities have stepped up scrutiny of private money flowing into primary and middle schools. In November, Chinese lawmakers banned schools that offer the first nine years of compulsory schooling from operating as for-profit enterprises. This has forced many schools to reregister their primary and middle school units as nonprofits. It is unclear whether Yungu would follow the same approach. Responding to a Caixin query, Alibaba said “the school will comply with national law,” without elaborating. 

The school’s website said it is attempting to tackle some of the core problems in China’s education system, such as cramped classrooms and teaching methods that emphasize rote learning instead of developing students’ personalities. The school will have one teacher per five students, whereas the teacher-to-student ratio in public schools is much higher. It has the capacity to enroll 3,000 pupils.

China’s private-education market has grown rapidly in recent years as the disposable income of families, especially in rich coastal cities, has gone up. In 2015, the overall investment in education in the country totaled 15.9 billion yuan ($2.31 billion), which is more than double the 6.1 billion yuan attracted in 2014, according to a report by Deloitte. China’s education market is expected to nearly double from 1.6 trillion yuan in 2015 to 3 trillion yuan by 2020, it said.

International schools, or private schools integrating aspects of international curricula with state-mandated textbooks, have become popular among middle-class parents. The market for international schools in the country was valued at over 78 billion yuan in 2015 and was expected to grow 8% to 15% in the next few years, according to Industrial Securities Co. Ltd.

Before becoming an entrepreneur, Ma spent seven years teaching English at Hangzhou Dianzi University. In September 2015, he launched an award aimed at helping rural teachers, which offers 100,000 yuan each year to 100 rural teachers selected through a nationwide competition and also offers them professional training.

Contact reporter Pan Che (chepan@caixin.com)

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