BEIJING -In an attempt to stop the spread of Western values in the education system, China is tightening the reins on popular programs that prepare students to study in the U.S. and elsewhere.
The new environment is evident at Beijing No. 4 High School in central Beijing. Like hundreds of Chinese schools, it has an international curriculum for students who want to earn degrees abroad after graduation.
But officials recently urged Beijing No. 4 to relocate that program to the city’s suburbs and sever it from the public school, said Shi Guopeng, the program’s principal. The school agreed, and the program now plans to move next year and possibly raise tuition, two moves that may impede its ability to attract students, Mr. Shi said.
“Some government officials don’t want to see so many students going abroad,” he added.
Beijing’s municipal education commission, which oversees local schools, didn’t reply to requests for comment.
In the past decade, these programs have flourished as China’s education ministry encouraged them as a way to train globally competitive students, said Jiang Xueqin, a researcher and education consultant in China. Now, that thinking has shifted, a reflection of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s fear that China’s school system is being damaged by the push for Western-style education. Many people are also concerned over what they say is a growing inequality between public-school students and those who can afford the pricier programs.
In Beijing, the government has stopped approving international programs, according to state media reports. In Shanghai, the government ordered some such programs to slash their fees to the level of ordinary schools as part of a process of standardization, making it harder for them to operate.
“International education isn’t being encouraged now,” said the head of a Shanghai-based program. “The government may not require you to shut down, but it is a nice way to say, please stop.”
The Shanghai municipal education commission said it believed international curricula could help improve China’s education system but that programs must teach required courses such as Chinese history and moral education.
The change comes as more Chinese students have pursued academic tracks leading them abroad. Last year, 459,800 Chinese students studied overseas, from 114,682 a decade ago, according to official Chinese figures. The number of students departing for abroad rose 11% last year.
For Beijing, the outflow sends a signal that its own schools are inadequate, Mr. Jiang said. And it means more Chinese are exposed to values and ways of living that may conflict with Communist Party priorities.
“Politically, there is a question of soft power,” Mr. Jiang said. “Xi Jinping’s China Dream has really been about a strong China that can project itself overseas. China sees itself as a natural competitor to the U.S., and it can’t have its elite creating all these alternative pathways to education.”
China had 21 universities in the top 100 for Asia in the latest Times Higher Education global rankings, surpassing Japan, which had 19, for the most in Asia. But many Chinese can’t qualify for elite institutions, and remain disenchanted with the rest of the system.
Some people, including Beijing No. 4’s Mr. Shi, say the government’s concerns over the programs are warranted because international programs share space on public high-school campuses, which are government funded, and sometimes share teachers. That rankles some parents whose children don’t benefit from the programs, which students attend in lieu of traditional Chinese high-school courses.
In a typical arrangement, high schools seek help from partner schools overseas and outside companies to set up the international programs. Located on existing campuses, they are run as autonomous entities. The programs charge higher-than-normal fees so they can hire more teachers, often foreigners. Beijing No. 4 charges 100,000 yuan ($15,700) a year, versus 800 yuan per semester for its ordinary classes.
Among other things, they teach advanced placement and international baccalaureate classes. At Beijing No. 4, students in an AP U.S. History class, students recently learned how settlers moved to America in search of freedom. Courses are often taught in English, rather than Mandarin.
Sara Li, 18, who graduated this year from the international program at Beijing No. 35 High School, said it gave her opportunities that wouldn’t have been available in regular Chinese high schools, including the chance to volunteer at a local school for migrant workers’ children.
“International departments give you a really supportive and helpful environment,” she said. “It helped me learn how to take the initiative.”
Educators say authorities are paying close attention at places like the Affiliated High School of Peking University, a school linked to one of China’s most prestigious universities.
Jesse Field, humanities coordinator at the international program there, said faculty were recently called in by the program’s dean and informed they had to be more cautious in class. He said they were told to steer clear of sensitive issues, which in China include topics like ethnic policies and human rights.
The dean didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“Up to now we’ve been told to be bold and free,” said Mr. Field, who has worked at the school for three years. “The atmosphere has changed and it is just going to be more cloistered and colder and we’re going to have to be more careful.”
Longer term, China is working to upgrade its own education system to keep more of its students at home and attract others from abroad. Beijing has poured billions of dollars into its universities in recent years.
But for now, analysts say Beijing worries international programs let many students bypass much of the national curriculum.
“They’re definitely worried about the phenomenon,” said Wang Xiong, vice president at Beijing-based 21st Century Education Research Institute. Students need to learn Chinese history, they need to learn to be patriotic—these are national requirements. The fear is that these goals are being lost.”