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A lesson for Hong Kong, Singapore in mainland China’s crackdown on the tutoring industry?

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 18/9/2021
a group of people standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera: Students and their parents leave a private after-school education session in the Haidan district of Beijing. Photo: AFP Students and their parents leave a private after-school education session in the Haidan district of Beijing. Photo: AFP

South Korean mother of two Kwon Se-jin spends 1.9 million won (US$1,616) every month to put her son in a preschool where the four-year-old can pick up some English words while playing with a native speaker.

"I don't want my young boy to get stressed out but at the same time I fear he will be left behind at the starting line," said Kwon, a housewife, adding that many other children her son's age were already focused on writing and speaking the language.

In Singapore, Jenny Tan, a marketing manager and mother of three, aged 14, 17 and 21, said she was able to help her children with school work when they were in primary school but sent them for tuition when they were in secondary.

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Tan, who spends around S$1,800 (US$1,340) a month on tuition for all three of her children, said extra lessons were necessary because class sizes at school were so large - 29 children per class in primary and 33 to 34 per class in secondary on average.

"It's hard for teachers to manage the diverse needs of the students and that's where tuition comes in," Tan said, adding that each child attended two enrichment classes, usually for mathematics or languages.

In Hong Kong, Jenny Cheng, a housewife, enrolled her daughter in extra Chinese and English writing classes when she was in primary school, and in extra Chinese, English, mathematics and chemistry classes when she was in secondary.

a group of people standing next to a statue of a person: Kwon Se-jin with her four-year-old son. Photo: Handout © Provided by South China Morning Post Kwon Se-jin with her four-year-old son. Photo: Handout

Cheng now forks out around HK$10,000 (US$1,284) on tuition five times a week for her daughter, who is now 17, covering everything from content consolidation to exam preparation. She said it was money well spent.

"Spending on (tuition) is about one's values. Some parents might splurge on this if money isn't a problem, but ultimately it's about what they think is worth it for the child," Cheng said "(My daughter) said she had felt improvement from tutorial classes too. She is now capable of analysing questions to better tackle exams."

Parents like Kwon, Tan and Cheng have, in recent decades, fuelled the growth of a booming private tuition industry that in many Asian countries and territories has become an integral part of the education system.

a person posing for the camera: Jenny Cheng. Photo: Handout © Provided by South China Morning Post Jenny Cheng. Photo: Handout

Parents in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and mainland China lead those in other places in spending on private tuition, pouring billions of dollars a year into giving their children a boost in the education race.

Market research firm Global Industry Analysts said the global demand for private tutoring hit US$196.3 billion in 2020, with a large percentage of that figure concentrated in Asia.

But the industry has taken a beating in China since the government's recent announcement that all for-profit tutoring in core subjects would be banned, prompting many in the region to wonder if other Asian countries would follow suit.

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While parents, tutors and analysts agree that the pressure on students can sometimes be excessive, the desire to ensure that children stay ahead of (or do not fall behind) their peers is unlikely to go away any time soon.

Analysts said that self-regulation might be key to ensuring that parents and students benefit from an industry that is often seen as complementing the formal school system, adding that education authorities can play their part by reducing stress in the formal educational system.

Kelvin Seah, a senior economics lecturer at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said that while private tuition remained a way for weaker students to catch up with their studies, even academically strong students were seeking tuition as a means to "maintain their edge over their peers".

"Parents of stronger students view enrichment classes as a means to ensure that their children continue to outperform their peers. Given that real household incomes have been increasing over time, parents have been more and more willing to fork out money for these enrichment classes," Seah said.

Mark Bray, emeritus professor and Unesco chair in comparative education at The University of Hong Kong, said the shift towards more tutoring was due to growing mobility and social competition, and accelerated by globalisation.

"Especially in China but also more widely, urbanisation has been a major force. Then the sector became industrialised with large companies operating alongside and to some extent supplanting the smaller companies and informal operators," Bray said, adding that this led to companies being listed on stock exchanges in Hong Kong, Shanghai and New York.

"The influence of external venture capital has been another factor that the Chinese government has sought to remove," said Bray.

a group of people sitting at a desk: Junior high school students in Jiangxi, China. Photo: Shutterstock © Provided by South China Morning Post Junior high school students in Jiangxi, China. Photo: Shutterstock

China's ban

Last month, China took measures to crack down on its booming tutoring industry, including banning off-campus tutoring for school curriculum subjects such as English and mathematics, even on weekends and holidays.

Beijing also banned private tutors from giving classes online or in unregistered venues such as homes and public places, making it clear that all institutions offering tutoring on school curriculum must be registered as non-profit organizations.

The ban, which is expected to threaten if not decimate the country's US$38 billion private tuition industry, is deemed necessary to ease pressure on children and parents in an education system that some say has become too competitive.

Apart from creating a more egalitarian society, authorities hope that the measures will also reduce the cost of child-rearing and encourage more people to have children to boost the country's declining birth rate.

Seah, from NUS, said China's crackdown was counterproductive as it was likely to push the private tuition industry underground and ultimately make it more expensive.

"The reduced supply of tuition, coupled with a high demand for it will just mean that the price of tuition will increase after the move," said Seah.

Bray, the Unesco chair in comparative education, said the crackdown would do little to change the "fundamental drivers of demand".

"Chief among these drivers is social competition - places in prestigious postsecondary education institutions are scarce," Bray said, adding that because China had a huge population with increasing mobility around the country, "the pressures are enormous".

"Certainly some parents in the short-run may applaud the government efforts to reduce burdens and make more time for other activities, but attitudes are likely to change again if and when they find themselves being left behind in the competition because of the anti-tutoring policies," Bray added.

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Crackdown? No way

Despite attempts by Asian governments to regulate the industry over the years, little headway has been made, ironically, due to resistance from parents who are choosing to have fewer children and invest more in each child, as has been the case in South Korea.

In 1980, under a sweeping action against the private tuition industry, students were banned from enrolling in private cram schools known as hagwons.

The move was aimed at equalising educational opportunities for the poor and to relieve parents of the burden of paying for tuition, but it backfired, forcing private tutoring underground.

It also drove up tutoring fees as tutors said they risked being caught and punished.

In 1998, with similar motivations, Seoul banned schools from providing after-hours lessons. However, this prompted more affluent parents to send their children overseas, especially to the United States.

The 1980 ban on hagwons was overturned in 2000 by the Constitutional Court, the country's highest court, which ruled that it "infringes upon the basic rights of the people to educate their children".

Daniella Jeong, who operates a large private tutoring institute in the suburbs of Seoul, said China's crackdowns on private tutoring gave rise to a sense of dejA vu for many South Koreans.

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"We've been there already. Crackdowns on private tutoring in (South Korea) have all failed and I doubt it will be any different in China," Jeong said, adding that like Chinese parents, Korean parents feared their children being "left behind".

In South Korea, private tutoring has deep roots as good grades ensure entry to good schools, which in turn lead to coveted jobs with higher incomes - and even better marriage prospects.

A survey in 2019 by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family found that junior school students were the biggest private education consumer group at 83.5 per cent, followed by middle school students at 71.4 per cent and high school students at 61 per cent. The private tutoring industry was worth 21 trillion won (US$17.9 billion) in 2019, or 1.1 per cent of GDP, with an average of 6.5 hours spent on tuition per week.

Mathematics required the most tutoring at 47.2 per cent and English came in second at 44.1 per cent.

a boy sitting at a table: Children read at a daycare service provided by Beijing Primary School during summer vacation. Photo: Xinhua © Provided by South China Morning Post Children read at a daycare service provided by Beijing Primary School during summer vacation. Photo: Xinhua

The situation is little different in Singapore, where a spokesperson from Academia, an enrichment centre, said that most parents saw tuition as a way for children to further their expertise and interests in certain subjects.

"The (tutoring) industry here is driven by the needs of parents who are extremely aware of what they want, many of whom work as corporate leaders," the spokesperson noted.

According to a survey by Singapore's Department of Statistics, households spent S$1.4 billion (US$1.04 billion) on tuition from 2017 to 2018.

A report by The Straits Times newspaper found that the number of tuition and enrichment centres had grown from 700 in 2012 to almost 1,000 in 2019.

Lim Weiyi, co-founder of The Study Room enrichment centre in Singapore, said most students started tuition from Primary 5 as there was a "steep learning curve" from Primary 4.

"They start preparing for their Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), the first set of national examinations the 12-year-olds take."

The PSLE is an annual national examination taken in the sixth and final year of primary school.

In 2018, Singapore's then-education minister Ong Ye Kung said that the government had no plans to ban private tuition.

This came after a slew of initiatives were introduced to reduce the emphasis on academic results, such as removing tests and revamping the scoring system of national examinations.

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Lim said it was highly unlikely that private tuition would be banned in a highly-developed free-market economy like Singapore.

"The government does not clamp down on businesses unless they have breached rules such as the KTVs in the recent surge in Covid-19 cases," Lim said, referring to the island's moves to close karaoke lounges after they were linked to a cluster of Covid-19 cases.

In Hong Kong, parents such as Mrs Ku, a mother of two daughters aged 21 and 16, who used to spend between HK$7,000 and HK$10,000 (US$900-US$1,285) on tuition in Chinese, English and mathematics every month when her children were in secondary school, argued that tuition should not be banned.

"Some students need such classes because they don't benefit from their school's environment, or the school teaching simply can't raise their interest," Ku said, adding that she saw no downsides to tuition as it had helped her children, who were mostly receptive.

In Hong Kong, private tuition took off in the 1980s when the economy started to boom and parents were more willing to spend money on their children's education, wrote Richard Eng from the University of Hong Kong in a 2019 article titled "The Tutoring Industry in Hong Kong: From the Past Four Decades to the Future".

"The golden age of the tutoring industry in Hong Kong started in the 1990s," Eng wrote, adding that the reasons behind the industry's boom included students' strong desire to receive university education "and their parents' traditional mindset that university education could change their children's future lives for the better."

While class-based tuition is common for both primary and secondary schoolchildren, one-to-one tutoring is also very popular.

By 2016, 1,317 private education centers offered tuition for primary school while 1,110 did so for secondary school students.

In recent years, the industry has witnessed the growth of star tutors, or tutors who have reached cult status by providing short cuts in solving exam problems and predicting future exam trends, often raking in millions and even tens of millions of dollars a year.

"I'm not a fan of the star-tutor trend. These tutors' fame and fortune seems to commodify education. There really is no need to hype them up or have students queue up for video lessons. It's not that they can't profit from this, but this style of marketisation is just unhealthy", Jenny Cheng in Hong Kong added.

Timothy Yu, CEO of SnapAsk in Hong Kong, a homework solution start-up that has expanded across Asia into an online tutorial platform, said that star tutors were unlikely to exist in the future and would be replaced by personalised education services provided by teachers of myriad teaching styles.

a man standing in front of a computer: Timothy Yu. Photo: Handout © Provided by South China Morning Post Timothy Yu. Photo: Handout

"Star tutors are in decline. We used to talk of one teacher teaching ten thousand students at once, but the observation that each student has their unique learning needs defeats this idea," Yu said, noting that modern exams demanded analytical thinking skills.

"University learning and various kinds of assessment call for a learning style which simply couldn't be captured by rote examination techniques as well," said Yu, who set up SnapAsk in 2015 and later expanded it to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

It now has 350,000 registered tutors and 4.5 million students in Asia.

YY Lam, a Chinese language star tutor at Beacon College, a cram school in Hong Kong, said mainland China's ban would not work in the Special Administrative Region, pointing out that the cause of academic stress was not tuition but rather the Chinese cultural emphasis on academic accomplishments.

Lam said the private tuition industry had once been concentrated in a few large education centres but over the past few years had become fragmented.

"There's also an online versus offline factor now as well, thanks to Covid-19. The rise of social media has also changed things as it's a lot easier to organise classes, you see university students doing that a lot," Lam said, adding that even though in-person teaching was irreplaceable, it was unlikely to continue on the same scale.

a man wearing a suit and tie: YY Lam, a star tutor. Photo: Handout © Provided by South China Morning Post YY Lam, a star tutor. Photo: Handout

Greater regulation? Perhaps

While outright banning of the industry does not appear to be on the cards, analysts agree that further regulations to fine-tune the system and for education authorities to take the lead in reducing stress in schools are likely to emerge as more realistic options.

After the constitutional ban in 2000, the South Korean government amended its laws to curb high tuition fees, which it capped at 200 won (17 US cents) per minute; ensure greater transparency; and tackle illegal tutoring, which is now punishable with fines of up to 10 million won (US$8,525) and up to a year in prison.

While hagwons are banned from advertising that they teach material before it is studied in school, that they do so it is an open secret.

Park Il-ho, a 61-year-old lawyer, pays 2.5 million won (US$2,130) every month in private tuition fees for his son who is in 10th grade in high school. He sees this as a necessity.

"It's difficult to get good grades at school without learning material ahead of schedule as the sheer volume of learning is simply too much at high schools," Park said, noting that students had little time to spend with their friends in the playground or on outdoor activities. "This is sad", added Park.

Bray, at The University of Hong Kong, said that in general, regulations for the industry across Asia remained weak.

"Most governments have a laissez faire approach," Bray said, adding that this was partly because education authorities in the region tended to see themselves as responsible for schooling rather than supplementary tutoring.

Bray said tutorial enterprises were commonly regulated as commercial enterprises with regards to taxation, contracts, fire regulations but were not well regulated as educational enterprises.

"Also, much tutoring is delivered through informal channels by university students, unregistered individuals and, especially in lower-income countries, full-time teachers who desire additional income," Bray said.

One solution, Bray said, lay in greater self-regulation within the industry, along the lines of what the Australian Tutoring Association did in 2011 when it came up with a code of conduct regulating professional qualifications and standards of tutoring, while ensuring best teaching and learning practices.

Such self-regulation, Bray said, would reduce stress and lead to greater confidence among parents that the sector was being monitored in a professional way. More importantly, it would prevent the government from stepping in, such as in the case of China.

"Industry bodies are more likely to engage in self-regulation if they feel threatened that the alternative will be external regulation by the government," Bray said, adding: "The Chinese model could be useful as a threat by governments in other countries, ie telling the industry to regulate itself because if it fails to do so the government will do so and perhaps even more harshly."

a sign on the side of a building: Adverts for tutors in Shanghai. File photo © Provided by South China Morning Post Adverts for tutors in Shanghai. File photo

Tackling inequalities? By all means

If regulating and self-regulating are not immediate options, some have argued that the solution to less tuition for Asian children lies perhaps in tackling inequalities and in ameliorating the competitive nature of most Asian societies.

Seah from NUS said that recent initiatives and changes introduced by Singapore's education authorities in addressing society's obsession with academic achievement were steps "in the correct direction". The measures included ensuring a wider banding of grades in the PSLE, recognising non-academic abilities and adopting aptitude-based entry to institutions of higher learning.

Seah said the obsession with academic achievement stemmed from "the public's response to a highly competitive system, where scarce places in coveted schools and universities are allocated primarily based on academic achievement".

However, Shin So-young, the policy team leader of The World without Private Tutoring, a South Korean activist group against private tuition, was sceptical. Shin said tuition would continue to be popular as long as there were job markets that favoured the alumni of some schools over others.

This month, in an effort to reduce the need for private tutoring, a group of South Korean lawmakers introduced a bill that if passed would bar job applicants from stating which schools they had graduated from.

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However, the bill faces strong opposition from hagwons and parents, prompting Shin to say she understood China's need to curb private tutoring to ensure greater equality.

"Crackdowns on private tutoring should go together with the improvement of public education systems to reduce education gaps between the rich and the poor and between large cities and farming villages in China," Shin said.

Parents too, need to manage their expectations. As Jenny Tan in Singapore noted, parents' expectations had grown over the past 15 years.

"It is much more stressful for the kids, who are expected to have good leadership skills, holistic skills and academic grades and then it becomes a kind of societal pressure. As parents, we are guilty of this and should try to manage it," Tan added.

Tan welcomed changes by the island's education ministry, such as abolishing examinations for students who were not in their final year, as this would allow students "to find their footing before being benchmarked".

"But it takes a whole mindset change to stop the 'tuition chase'," said Tan.

Additional reporting by Jess Ma

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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