Meet the Chinese tycoon offering teachers millions

10th June 2016 at 00:00
Benefactor who founded new teaching prize calls on China to loosen its grip on the nation’s schools

If China is to adapt to the rapidly shifting needs of pupils in the digital age, the government should hand more autonomy to schools and give a greater role to the private sector.

That is the message from one of the country’s leading billionaires, Charles Chen Yidan, who recently donated more than £200 million of his own money to set up the world’s most valuable awards for teachers.

Mr Chen, who – like so many of today’s education philanthropists – made his money in the tech industry, recently established the Yidan Prize, which will give more than £5 million every year to education research and development projects across the globe.

The 45-year-old businessman believes that while China’s school system has achieved “astonishing success” in recent decades, the government should free up schools to enable them to provide for the changing requirements of parents and students.

“The current school system has developed through the world’s second industrial revolution, which is school-education oriented, designed to provide better employment, and skill-based training and cultivation,” Mr Chen told TES. “But we have entered the fourth industrial-revolution age, which means the information and digitalised education age. People will have more complex individual demands for education.”

Experiment in enjoyment

Sitting in his glass-walled office at Tencent – the Chinese internet company he helped found – 50 storeys above Hong Kong Island, Mr Chen speaks from experience in education innovation. The bookish former lawyer has already established an all-through primary and secondary school, called the Shenzhen Mingde Experimental School – a privately managed public school just across the Hong Kong/China border.

The school in Shenzhen, the mainland city where Mr Chen was brought up, was established with the aim of making education more “enjoyable and less stressful” for pupils.

He was keen for the new institution to be an all-through school, as he believes that transferring to different schools at end of the primary phase can be a difficult transition for children to manage.

Growing burden on state

Mr Chen argues that the Chinese government will have to allow a lot more private innovation in education if it is to meet the needs of its people. Pressure on state resources is likely to grow, as parental demand for higher-quality schooling increases, especially as the country has recently abolished its one-child policy.

“The Chinese schooling system, for the moment, is majorly based on public resources, so the schools are publicly funded,” he said. “The emerging phenomenon is more private educators. I would suggest the government on the one hand needs to enhance the regulations and guidance of the governance of public schools, but at the same time, they need to give more autonomy and self-governance rights to those schools.

“Another direction is that we should encourage more people to invest in private school establishments or instruction.”

Value of encouragement

Mr Chen’s financial contribution to the schooling sector was motivated, he said, by his own educational experiences.

His first inspiration was his grandmother who, despite being illiterate, saw the value in gaining a high-quality education.

“She didn’t do much, but she had her unique way,” he said. “She gave us her encouragement or, sometimes, if we did well at school, she gave us a happy smile and that is basically the inspiration for me.”

Nevertheless, he almost missed out on his own university education, as he failed his language exam during the dreaded gaokao – the national Chinese university-admission tests.

Luckily, he gained enough good grades to study chemistry at university. Mr Chen went on to secure a master’s degree in law and his life looked set when he picked up a job as a civil servant. Not long afterwards, four friends got in touch about setting up a company.

“At the time, my goal was to have my own business, as I wanted more freedom at work,” he recalled of his decision.

“I didn’t care so much about the business nature as the opportunity for us to do something together. If it was a bakery that they set up, I would have joined them.”

Instead, they established Tencent, which is a website and social-media platform provider. Its social media services, such as WeChat – the Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp – are used by about 80 per cent of the Chinese population.

Mr Chen stepped down from the company, which has an estimated value of 400 billion yuan or £41 billion, but remains a shareholder. His personal fortune has not been disclosed, but he and his fellow Tencent founders are considered to be among the wealthiest entrepreneurs in China.

It is this rapid rise to riches that has led Mr Chen to establish the education prize.

“I have acquired enough wealth to satisfy all of my daily needs and more,” he said. “But it is only in my hand fleetingly.

“I am the lucky one. I am one of the beneficiaries of a good education. So I have the resources to promote the development of a good education and to promote it in a much larger sense – why not do it?”


What is the Yidan Prize?

Mr Chen’s Yidan Prize will donate £5.2 million every year to two Yidan laureates trying to solve some of the biggest challenges facing global education.

The award will consist of two prizes, the Yidan Prize for Education Research and the Yidan Prize for Education Development, with each receiving £2.6m to fund the project.

Mr Chen says he hopes the awards will provide a platform for the laureates to collaborate and communicate on tackling major education issues.

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