It’s a good life, being a private tutor in Asia. Just ask Richard Eng, a star tutor in Hong Kong as famous for his personalised Italian sports car as he is for his televised lectures, available at any of the twelve tutoring centres he owns throughout the city. With around sixty percent of students across the region receiving additional instruction at some point in their educational career, there’s a lot of money to be made in this field.1

But things weren’t always like this. If you look at Singapore, for example, back in 1982, only twenty-seven percent of households reported spending money on private tutoring, compared with eighty percent today.2 You might think that this growth in private tutoring was accompanied by a rapid decline in the quality of public education. In fact, it’s the opposite: Singapore boasts one of the world’s best public education systems. And it’s not much different in the rest of affluent Asia.

What’s going on?

Governments take a utilitarian view of education. They see it as a sorting tool with which they can “efficiently” allocate resources. Using the standardised exam, admittedly a blunt instrument, governments channel student populations into socially desirable occupations (and that includes plumbing just as much as it does medicine) according to their abilities. The system is based on a principle of meritocracy that ensures that a person is engaged in a certain profession because of his or her aptitude.

Parents, of course, come at this from the opposite angle. They are not concerned at all with what is right for society but what they consider to be right for their children. They see a world of increasing inequality, where those at the top do so much better than those at the bottom. And the most assured way to the top is through academic success. So they use every resource at their disposal to give their children a leg up in the system.

As a result, you end up with an entire shadow system of education, privately funded and running parallel to the public system. If that were all, there would be no problem – after all, in all areas of life we are constantly negotiating a balance between personal needs and public obligations. The issue, however, is that this shadow system can distort the official system, and when that is the outcome, we should be concerned.

The distortions are three-fold.

First, since a considerable proportion of private tuition is provided by teachers, it can create potentially corrupting incentives for teachers to put less effort into their day jobs, thus undermining the educational experience for students who do not pursue private tuition.

Second, students who spend so much time in after-school tutoring centres are often too exhausted to be their best while in school. The same students may also have less respect for their teachers, who seem to come free of charge, than for their tutors, to whom they are directly paying money. The in-class experience becomes less than optimal, and frankly, that time would be better spent doing something else.

Third, private tuition costs money, in some cases a considerable amount of money. It is more readily accessed by the most privileged members of society. As a result, it intensifies inequalities between the rich and poor, male and female, and urban and rural populations. This is the opposite of the goal of public education, which aims to reward people based on their ability and not on their economic resources.

These distortions reverberate in the economy at large. The talent is mismatched with the available opportunities. Not everyone who studied to be a doctor can find employment as one. Meanwhile, there aren’t enough plumbers and waiters. These positions have to be filled by importing labour.

 

Public education is an instrument of economic stratification; private education/ tutoring is an instrument of social stratification. The second set of outcomes sabotages the first.

 

We are at a moment now when the private tuition sector looks a bit like formal education in the early years of the twentieth century–unregulated, unstandardized and difficult to track.

It’s time to take a closer look.