Learning the expensive way

Educating a four year-old in China costs more than an MBA

Learning the expensive way

"The colour of the mouse does not matter so long as it teaches English"

You’ve bought the DVD, you’ve been to the Hong Kong theme park, and now you can send your child to the Disney school. Well, if you are Shanghainese that is.

The Chinese city is the world’s first to benefit from a Disney education. There are two schools already open, and another two will open in June. And after teaching Shanghai’s children how to speak English, the House of Mouse plans to open in Beijing within the year.

The initiative forms part of a Disney foray into the education market. With an estimated 300 million people learning English in China (source: Prime Minister Wen Jiabao), it doesn’t take a genius to realise that this a lucrative opportunity. In fact, it is reckoned to be worth Rmb14 billion ($2.04 billion) annually, and is growing at 12% per year.

Disney English Training Centre is designed for two to 10 year-olds, reports the Wall Street Journal, and endeavours to make learning fun by using a combination of video, customised books and Disney characters.

None of this comes cheap. According to the Oriental Morning Post, the Disney offering is “the most expensive English course for children in the Shanghai market”. Two hours of tuition a week costs Rmb8,988 per year – which works out at Rmb100 an hour.

But Disney understands its customer base. The fees may be toppy, but parents are often willing to shell out large sums on tuition for their children. Education is a must-have if their offspring are to get ahead.

And to get ahead, children need to start early it seems. Another fast growing market is in ‘early education centres’, targeting the aspirational parents of toddlers.

Again, Shanghai seems to be setting the pace. At Gymboree, six month old babies are taught to crawl, one year-olds are exposed to music and movement, and by three they are learning multiplication and division. Most of the schools are spin-offs of US and Europe models, and base their curriculums on German Orff Music and such like.

The Oriental Morning Post cites the example of Mr Zhang, who sends his four year-old to the Perching Kids Early Education Centre. “The financial crisis has had no impact on early education,” says Zhang, who spends Rmb13,000 a year for his daughter’s pre-school tuition.

Zhang has even calculated that his daughter’s pre-school is more expensive than an MBA. He thinks that the hourly rate for his daughter’s tuition is Rmb160. “My colleague is currently studying for an MBA at Jiaotong University. It costs Rmb88,000 for 992 hours – which means the average hourly fee is only Rmb118.”

A Money Week survey in Shanghai of 79 families – all of whom are paying for their children’s pre-school tuition – found that a third of the families were spending 20-50% of their household income on education. Many respondents felt it was unavoidable – they did not want their children to “lose at the starting line” and reckoned that “the earlier the child receives the best education, the greater the advantage.”

But at least one junior prodigy seems set to disagree. A student at Nanjing Foreign Language School, Min Jie has made headlines recently as a “genius girl”, following offers of admission from 14 US universities – including Yale and Princeton.

However, Min Jie is at pains to insist this was not a result of paying for extra-curricular tuition – in fact, she didn’t have any at all.

She says that the American universities liked her more because she focused on “all round development” rather than just being a “bookworm”. She says her schooling provided a free environment for personal growth, and she has exploited it to the full with hobbies that include the theatre (acting and directing), learning to dance, speaking French, and volunteer work at Nanjing Museum.

“I think it is not bad to rank in the top three [academically] and I believe all round development is more important than being in first place,” Min confides. Clearly American admissions officers concurred.

But luckily for the burgeoning Chinese education market, few parents are likely to see Min Jie as a model. They’d rather not take any chances, and will spend ever greater sums on their children’s tuition as a result.

And with Disney’s expansion plans that will keep Mickey and his teacher friends very busy indeed.

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