Thursday 21 November 2013

Tuition madness, Gangnam style

TODAY examines the tuition craze in South Korea’s capital Seoul, including in the affluent Gangnam district, and the factors driving the high demand for tuition
By Ng Jing Yng, TODAY, 16 Nov 2013

Last month, TODAY reported that the Ministry of Education was reviewing its policy of allowing teachers to give private tuition, as calls grew for the policy to be tightened or scrapped completely. Over the years, there have been perennial calls among the public for the authorities to do more to regulate the tuition sector, which some feared had got out of hand.

In South Korea, where the tuition craze has reached fever pitch, the government has tried to regulate the industry — to mixed success — such as introducing a curfew on the operating hours of tuition centres and considering a ban against tutors teaching students what they have yet to learn in school.

In the first instalment of a two-part special report, TODAY examines the situation in South Korea’s capital Seoul, including in the affluent Gangnam district, and the factors driving the high demand for tuition. The second part on Monday will look at how the government and some groups in South Korean society, including school leaders, parents and a former “star” tutor, are trying to do more to fight against the tide and wean children off tuition.

SEOUL — On a Thursday evening last month, this reporter was at one of the popular tuition-centre zones, Daechi-dong, in Gangnam district. With just weeks to go before the high-stakes college-entrance exams, which are held every November, the streets were quiet, in contrast to the intense activity taking place behind closed doors.

At the stroke of 10pm, the streets suddenly came alive, as children clutching mock exam papers spilled out of the hagwon (Korean for “private-learning institutes”) and road marshals sprung into action to guide the cars arriving to pick up the children.

If anyone thinks Singaporeans’ tuition craze has got out of hand, “we’re not as bad as the Koreans”, as former Education Minister Ng Eng Hen noted.

Despite government efforts since 2000 to dampen demand for tuition, including enacting a 10pm curfew on operating hours for hagwon and asking the centres to justify their fees, about seven in 10 South Korean pupils took up lessons outside school last year and the majority of this group had tuition in academic subjects, based on official statistics. The population’s total expenditure on private classes was 19 trillion won (S$22.3 billion).

To capitalise on the lucrative industry and feed off the worry among Korean parents over the country’s rising youth unemployment, tuition centres in the country hire “star” tutors who command individual fees of up to US$4 million (S$5 million) every year, and their students are taught lessons ahead of the national syllabus.

Ms Kim Ye Ji, 19, has tried all forms of tuition — paid online classes, home tuition and attending lessons at a hagwon. “We are so used to (tuition) that it becomes difficult to study on our own,” the high school student said.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Kim Se Young, 12, has mathematics tuition till 7pm. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, English tuition classes are pencilled in till 6.30pm.

“Schooling is not stressful … it is the tuition homework that is very stressful”, said Se Young, who goes to bed around midnight on weekdays.

Her mother, Madam Shin Jae Eun, 41, however, insisted that the money — more than US$1,000 a month — spent on her daughter’s tuition classes was worth it. As she and her husband spend a lot of time at work as bankers, she reckoned that a hagwon would be a good place for her daughter to spend her time after school.
“Se Young gets full marks in all her tests … what is being taught in school now is below her level,” said Mdm Shin, who had deliberately moved the family to Gaepo-dong — located in the affluent Gangnam district, which inspired a worldwide hit by South Korean pop star Psy — known for its famous tuition centres.

The perks of tuition

In Seoul, there are about 13,500 hagwon. Walk into any of these and one would be greeted by pictures of children who attended tuition there and topped the national exams. The acronym SKY is also commonly seen in ads by tuition centres which claim to guarantee that their students will make it to the three most prestigious universities — Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University.

For instance, at New Study Academy, a mid-sized tuition centre in Gwanak district offering lessons across all levels and subjects, prospective students have to sit for an admission test. They are then grouped according to their abilities and in classes of 15 (in comparison, the average class size in public schools is 30).

The centre’s maths tutor Moon Ahn Il said a hagwon can provide more attention to faster learners, something which public schools cannot give.

For some students, a hagwon also offers a competitive environment that home tutoring cannot. High-school student Kim Dong Hee, 16, said she switched from home tuition to attending a hagwon in order “to feel motivated by other pupils around her”.

Like her peers, Dong Hee attested to the effectiveness of lessons at a hagwon, given the greater attention they receive and the fact that they can learn ahead of the school syllabus.

Director of hagwon K1 Math, Kim Hong Myoung, claimed that advanced learning is integral to academic success. Mr Kim, a former school teacher, said that, by the end of middle school, his students would have grasped the high-school maths syllabus.

“This is to help them buy time ... so they can pay attention to weaker areas and get a perfect score,” he said. His centre in Gwangjin district only takes in those who pass its admission test.

Getting around the rules

To get around the curfew, hagwon owners said they simply operated longer hours on weekends, gave students more homework or made use of online learning.

Some students also continue receiving tuition after 10pm by hiring private tutors. Private tutor Kim Tae Hong, for example, gives maths tuition between 10pm and midnight on weekdays after his pupils get home from hagwon.

Home tutors TODAY interviewed said they charge a monthly fee of between 300,000 and 400,000 won. In comparison, monthly fees for a hagwon can start from 200,000 won.

Mr Cho Moon Ho, a representative of the Korea Federation of Hagwons, said: “As long as there is demand (for tuition), we will provide ... The regulations are only widening the gap between the rich and poor, as the rich will hire private tutors to study more.”

Official figures last year showed that, on average, the top 10 per cent of students in public schools — in terms of academic performance — spent almost twice as much every month on private classes outside school (307,000 won) as their peers in the bottom 20 per cent (161,000 won).

In a highly competitive industry — which is resisting government efforts to dampen the demand for it — these private-learning centres have had to raise their game, offering free trial lessons or cash incentives for referrals.

New Study Academy Director Kim Sung Oh said his centre had also created a specially designed mobile app to keep parents updated on how their children are doing.

Hagwon tutors have seen their job scope expand to areas such as providing advice on which school to choose or which career to pursue. For these tutors, it is a cut-throat industry. Mr Kim said the contracts of his centre’s 60 tutors are up for renewal every year and he could fire up to half of them annually.

Learning in schools takes a backseat

Professor Okhwa Lee of Chungbuk National University, who disapproves of the tuition craze in Korea, described hagwon as part of the culture. The situation is made worse by a distinct hierarchy among the country’s universities and the impact of globalisation on youth employability, she said. To address the problem, there has to be broader university admission criteria beyond grades, she suggested.

On the desire among parents and students for the latter to learn things before they are taught in school, Seoul National University Professor Moon Hwy Chang noted: “As more students join this race ... (it) eventually reduces the importance of learning in school.”

Citing recent research, Dr Baek Sun Geun, President of the Korean Educational Development Institute, said there is also a lack of trust in the public-education system. But public-school teachers, who are banned from giving private tuition, said the tuition craze engulfing the country has affected learning in schools.

English teacher C I Lee said some of his students sleep during his class, while others use the time to complete their tuition assignments. He also observed that his students had lost the ability to study independently. Nevertheless, literature teacher K H Kim conceded that tuition could improve students’ academic performance, given how public-school teachers are bogged down by administrative duties and unable to cater to students’ different pace of learning.

“I have to teach at the average level to meet everyone’s needs and follow (the) lessons’ schedule,” she said.

S Koreans fight against tuition tide
The South Korean experience in curbing the tuition craze could provide lessons for Singapore
By Ng Jing Yng, TODAY, 16 Nov 2013

In the second instalment of a two-part special report, TODAY looks at South Korea’s efforts to regulate its multi-billion-dollar tuition industry. After a ban on tuition in 1980 failed spectacularly, the Korean government has adopted a more sophisticated approach: Since 2004, it has ordered schools to hold after-school classes and offer free online lessons, as well as imposed a 10pm curfew on the operating hours of tuition centres.

Apart from government efforts, individuals and organisations have also come forward to fight against the tuition craze and advocate for better education policies as a long-term solution. Slowly but surely, the tide is changing — and Singapore could take a leaf out of South Korea’s experience as it seeks to put a lid on the demand for tuition.

SEOUL — Fame, money and success, Mr Lee Bohm, 44, had it all when he was one of South Korea’s “star tutors” — or a “star gansa” as the locals call it. For five consecutive years, he was earning US$1 million (S$1.25 million) annually. At one point, he tutored as many as 300 pupils, while 10,000 watched his online lectures.

But the alumnus of the prestigious Seoul National University is now a leading advocate against a tuition craze that has reached its zenith.

Today, he travels around the country to advocate better education policies so parents need not send their children for tuition.

“Poorer families are losing out as rich families continue to pay for tuition services,” he said.

Urging the government to encourage entrepreneurship among the young as the country grapples with high youth unemployment, Mr Lee added: “The Korean economy of the future needs creative minds; it is not just about being able to find the right answers anymore.”

Mr Lee said he started giving tuition during his graduate-school days. It was an easy way to earn good money, he recounted.

Being able to tutor students on several subjects, he gradually made a name for himself — so much so that he abandoned his doctorate studies in 2000 and founded Megastudy, which has since become one of the largest private-tuition organisations in South Korea, to fulfil his wish of providing education for the masses.

However, only three years after setting up the company, he became disillusioned with the cut-throat industry when he found out that some of his colleagues were resorting to underhand tactics such as smearing their fellow tutors online and paying people to write glowing testimonies about themselves.

“I was so shocked... I thought (deeply) about what I was doing,” he said.

Like Mr Lee, there are others in South Korea who are fighting against the tuition tide. For example, a group of citizens had set up a non-profit organisation called World Without Worries of Private Education (WWWPE). Its Vice-President Jin An-Sang, a former high-school maths teacher, saw his former students who attended hagwon — Korean for private-learning institutes — lose the ability to think and learn independently.

Both Mr Lee and WWWPE believe the government should improve the education system, instead of introducing more regulations for the tuition sector. Mr Jin criticised the hagwon’s marketing strategy of promising to teach students lessons they have yet to learn in school as “outrageous (and) fomenting anxiety among parents and students”.

“This excessive tuition demand has caused stratification among students and schools. Everyone just wants to get ahead in the education race,” said Mr Jin, who called for teachers to be trained in innovative ways in teaching maths — the second most popular subject after the English language that students seek tuition for.


Before the government rolled out a 10pm curfew on the operating hours of hagwon in 2008, tuition classes would continue late into the night, said hagwon-policy officer Hwang Sun Wook of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education. “Exhausted students will not be able to focus in school if they stay too long in hagwon … we have to (maintain a) balance between private and public education,” he said.

Currently, to ensure tuition centres abide by the curfew, officers conduct patrols twice a week and carry out surprise raids on the centres after 10pm. The authorities also offer monetary incentives for citizens to tip them off on errant centres.

Representatives from the Gangnam and Northern District education offices told TODAY that, over the years, tuition centres have become increasingly compliant to the rules. The number of cases in which the curfew was broken fell from 450 in 2010 to 235 last year.

Nevertheless, some hagwon still break the rules when exams are approaching. For instance, these centres would pull down the shutters while continuing to conduct lessons after 10pm. When caught, they would claim they were unaware of the rules.

Apart from the curfew, the government has introduced other regulations, such as getting hagwon to justify their fees based on their annual financial statements and allowing them to hire only tutors who have at least a two-year college degree.

To dampen the demand for tuition, the government introduced free online learning for students in 2004, with thousands of lectures made available. Public-school teachers or popular tutors would also give lessons on subjects such as English and maths on the country’s free-to-air education TV channel.

That same year, public schools started offering after-school classes at a fraction of hagwon fees. Now, almost all elementary and middle schools in Korea conduct such classes. The participation rate among students has inched up over the years, reaching about 58 per cent last year.

Since 2004, the Korean Ministry of Education has spent about 300 billion won (S$350 million) on online learning. For this year, about 240 billion won has been budgeted for after-school classes.

A ministry spokesperson told TODAY that the government is planning to draw up laws to ban hagwon from teaching students ahead of the public school curriculum.

In Singapore, some Members of Parliament have called for a study on the impact of tuition. Since 2007, South Korea’s Ministry of Education has conducted annual surveys on private-education spending by parents and students and their perceptions of tuition. The findings have helped to craft education policies to reduce private-education spending, its spokesperson said.


Slowly but surely, hagwon are feeling the tightening noose. “We are given a licence but they want to stop us from running the business, it is ridiculous,” said Mr Cho Moon-ho, who represents the Korean Federation of Hagwons.

Hagwon owners interviewed said that the government’s regulations are challenging business operations. Compliance costs are adding up, enrolment is falling and profits have been cut since the curfew was put in place, they said.

The government’s political messages to the public on hagwon — blaming tuition for the low birth rate and high household spending, for instance — are also giving the tuition industry a bad reputation, said New Study Academy hagwon owner Kim Sung Oh. He added: “Students do not have time to come to my centre after their long after-school sessions. Fee restrictions also limit the quality I can provide.”

According to official statistics, the number of tuition centres in Seoul has fallen in the last few years by between 200 and 300 annually, stabilising at the current figure of about 13,500.

Average monthly spending per student on private education dropped by 1.7 per cent to 236,000 won last year, compared to 2011. Over the same period, the participation rate for hagwon fell by 2.3 percentage points to 69.4 per cent.

While noting that the government’s efforts have made some inroads to shrink the tuition industry, Mr Hwang from the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education said the bleak economy and low birth rate also accounted for the declining figures. “Parents still have to change their mindset that hagwon are the cure-all,” he said.


The tuition craze has raised concerns among South Koreans about social mobility. Public data have shown that richer households are significantly outspending the less affluent families on tuition. For households earning more than 7 million won, the average monthly spending per student on tuition was 426,000 won last year. In comparison, spending by households earning less than 1 million won was 68,000 won.

However, observers felt that there is a limit to government intervention. The key is for the authorities to invest more in schools and raise public trust of the country’s education system.

Seoul National University Professor Moon Hwy Chang noted that Japan and Taiwan have large tuition industries. However, their governments have refrained from intervening, as “it is not so effective”, he said.

Nevertheless, Professor Okhwa Lee of Chungbuk National University acknowledged the government’s efforts, adding that offering online lessons and after-school classes was a “good start”.

On whether the government could have stepped in earlier, the South Korean Ministry of Education spokesperson noted that it tried to ban private tuition in 1980 but it resulted in rampant illegal tutoring. “It is difficult to curb private education since it is related to individuals’ right to learning,” she said.

Prof Moon argued that Singapore could learn from South’s Korea experience by refraining from regulating the tuition sector. Budget constraints and bureaucratic processes, among other things, will limit the impact, he added. He also cautioned against treating tuition as competition to the public-school system. “The (Singapore and South Korean) governments should be careful not to limit the potential benefit and availability for people that are derived from the diversity in the education sector,” he added.


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