Global educator EF vows to grow with world's largest private education market
By Zhang Xinyuan
Chinese people's ever-growing enthusiasm to improve their English language skills and connect with the world attracted the international language training group EF Education First to come all the way from Northern Europe to China over 20 years ago, and the company has taken root in the country ever since.
Now operating over 300 schools in over 60 cities in China, the Nordic educator is undeterred by a tougher market under the shadow of the pandemic, and said 2020 will be the group's biggest investment year yet, especially by exploring a high-quality online learning model.
Speaking to CGTN, Jacob Toren, the CEO of EF China shared his observations on how China's business environment has changed to enable more transparency and fairness for foreign businesses over the years, and the new opportunities presented in the education industry during the virus outbreak.
The following are excerpts from the interview, edited for brevity and clarity.
CGTN: What's your take on China's new foreign investment law? And how has China's business environment changed since the launch?
Jacob: At a time when protectionist sentiments are increasing globally, the new law assures foreign investors – especially those that are committed to the market long-term – that China is dedicated to fostering fair competition and creating a more transparent business environment.
We have felt changes in China's business environment. It is more transparent and the market access is greater. The new law is good news for companies that have a long-term vision and commitment to China.
The Chinese private education market has great potential, both in size and in quality. We believe that it's set to become the largest education market in the world and we will therefore of course continue to invest in this region.
The opening-up of the sector will continue to benefit the industry and makes us more confident to open more schools across the country in order to meet the growing demand for our educational programs.
CGTN: Any room for improvement regarding the current new foreign investment law?
Jacob: I think the government's commitment is clear and commendable. Of course, it will take time to systematically implement new regulations and policies across the country, but for us at EF, we are working with regulatory offices at all levels to support the industry's development, and also to share our views and what we have learned.
In order to speed things up, we hope that the new law will continue to lower barriers to entry, strengthen supervision, and also further shift administrative processes online, and simplify approval procedures. Because this will then effectively realize the government's overall goal to reduce barriers to entry, but still enhance the management and supervision of operations.
CGTN: Is your company still confident about China's economy in light of the recent pandemic?
Jacob: Yes, we are confident. We remain confident about China's economy both in the medium and in the long term. The long-term fundamentals of China's economy have not changed.
We are assured because China has taken very efficient measures that no one has ever witnessed before. I believe this will be a defining moment that will strengthen China, and we will see a strong rebound when all cities can return to normal, and I'm also confident that this will not impact the long-term development of China becoming the world's largest economy.
In fact, for us at the EF, this will probably be one of our biggest investment years ever. So now in 2020, we will see more schools, we will see that we continue to invest in our English hybrid learning system and we will continue to invest in more teachers and talent because that is key to quality of education.
CGTN: How did EF cope with disruptions from the coronavirus outbreak? And how is the work resumption process going?
Jacob: Shortly following the COVID-19 outbreak, we took very quick action and closed all of our schools. Then EF swiftly migrated 500,000 students online, and offered citizens in China free online English resources.
As the pandemic in China has eased and is under control now, over 80 percent of EF's employees have returned to work, and many of our Chinese and foreign teachers have also come back to work after meeting all relevant quarantine requirements.
Following the guidance and requirements of local governments, our training centers for kids, teenagers as well as adults in some cities in China have resumed operations. To prepare for the reopening of offline centers in other cities across China, we have also implemented a series of health and safety measures and developed contingency plans to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our employees, teachers and students.