Widespread Culture of Private Tutoring in Hong Kong

The course “International Education Policy” under the Master’s Program of Comparative and International Education at Lehigh University has broadened my view in various ways. One of them is the area of private tutoring, which has also been referred to as “Shadow Education” by Dr. Mark Bray.[1] Dr. Bray is the UNESCO Chair Professor of Comparative Education in the Comparative Education Research Centre at the University of Hong Kong whose research focuses on private supplementary tutoring.[2]Before taking this course, I had an impression that private tutoring primarily existed in Southeast Asian countries. However, I have learned that it has been very common in many parts of the world, including Europe and the United States, but just in different forms. It reminds me of many interesting scenarios about private tutoring in Hong Kong, which I will examine in this blog.

Mainly, there are two types of private tutoring in Hong Kong. One is held at home and the other one is held in the education centers, which operate as businesses. For the former one, numerous online websites serve as a bridge between students and private tutors to match the requirements or criteria of both parties.[3]  For the latter one, there are significant numbers of education centers with a wide variety of choices for the public, including classes in musical instruments, dancing, artwork, languages, sports, martial arts, or even actuarial science. Some people may refer to these classes as enrichment programs. Evidently, many learning centers also offer classes in academic areas, like English, Mathematics, Chinese, while some of them purposely assist students tackle local or overseas public examinations, including SAT and TOEFL.  

Many factors contribute to the flourishing industry of private tutoring in Hong Kong. First, Hong Kong’s examination-oriented education system has put too much emphasis on the students’ academic results, which can alter their future academic and professional trajectories. The recent shift from two to one public examination due to education reform from the British to American model further accelerated the explosion of private tutoring as students have much more pressure to only have one chance at succeeding on the exam.[4] However, being a good student does not mean that you can be successful in these examinations. What students need are the techniques and strategies to predict accurately the topics or questions in the upcoming exams according to the pattern from the past papers, as it is almost impossible for students to study all of the materials that teachers provide in the curriculum. By paying tuition for private tutoring, students hope to perfect the specific skills that they cannot learn in public schools because regular schoolteachers are deprived of comparable resources or the time to do that.[5]

Second, Hong Kong parents have the mentality of pushing their children to achieve excellently in academics due to the great influence of Confucianism.[6] Because the birth rate of this city is one of the lowest in the world,[7] “tiger parents” often place all their hopes in one child to become a “Dragon” – an almighty creature in Chinese culture.[8] Before the babies are born, mothers already think about which kindergartens, primary, and secondary schools their children would need to get in, so that they could attend the top universities and have good jobs at the end. Parents also believe that private tutoring could assist their children in learning extra information, so that they could succeed on public examinations. In addition, parents expect their children to become competent in all areas, including languages, art, music, sports, and martial arts. They do not want them to lose at the starting point. As a result, they force their children to enter this vicious cycle of competitions and occupy their free time with many private classes – no matter whether they like it or not, often as early as only one or two years old. Sometimes, kids are tired and cannot enjoy their childhoods due to excessive external study. We can imagine how much academic stress Hong Kong’s next generation needs to bear, especially those who fail in this system. This pressure has been blamed for a growing suicide rate among students with poor academic record.[9]

Third, being a private tutor in Hong Kong can be a lucrative career. I used to be a part-time private tutor for primary school students when I was an undergraduate student to help cover living expenses. Some tutors can even make a living from tutoring services. Recently, Hong Kong has experienced a new phenomenon of some private tutors from education centers becoming famous celebrities like kings or queens. The most successful one is Richard Eng who has become a multi-millionaire! He founded Beacon College and he is considered to be the firstcelebrity tutor in Hong Kong. He wears lipstick for photo shoots and all classes are broadcast live through closed-circuit television.[10] With this career, he is able to drive a half-a-million-dollar Lamborghini car as well as dress himself up with brand-name clothing and manicured hair. [11]

5. private tutor billboard

6. private tutor billboard

Fourth, there is a lack of governmental regulations of private tutoring and many tutors operate no differently than entrepreneurs. The most fascinating phenomenon is the emergence of giant billboards in the most popular places where teenagers go. This creates the image of private tutors as pop stars. Besides, millions and millions of advertisements go online. Glossy brochures and impressive promotional videos are seen everywhere. Some tutoring schools will have full-page newspaper advertisements and television screens in railway stations and on buses to catch youngsters’ attention, claiming to transform failing students into A-grade pupils.[12]  Some tutors even have their own teams of stylists, fashion designers and photographers to make them look perfect and attract students.[13] Lately, with the advancement of technology, students can have additional purchases such as personalized interaction with the star tutor or the tutor’s assistant via Facebook or email.[14]

3. private tutor billboard

1. private tutoring ad. on the bus

Research in other countries suggests that private tutoring is a manifestation of privatization in education. According to a recent study conducted by the Asian Development Bank and the Comparative Education Research Centre at the University of Hong Kong, private tutoring will aggravate social inequalities, divert needed household income into an unregulated industry, and generate inefficiencies in education systems. [15] Sadly, the private tutoring phenomenon also demonstrates how little confidence parents and students in Hong Kong have in public education to lead the achievement of our next generation.  

 

[1] Bray, M.(2009). Confronting the shadow education system: What government policies for private tutoring? Paris, France: UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning.

[2] The University of Hong Kong (2014). Faculty of Education – About the Faculty – Professor BRAY, Mark. Retrieved on April 12, 2014 from http://web.edu.hku.hk/staff/academic/mbray

[3] Hon, H.N. (2010). Hong Kong’s Shadow Education: Private Tutoring in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Anthropologist,  4 (10).

[4] Sharma, Y (2012, November 27). Meet the “tutor kings and queens”. The BBC. Retrieved on April 12, 2014, from http://www.bbc.com/news/business-20085558

[5] Lui, M. (2007, January 28). Hot for teacher in Hong Kong. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved on April 12, 2014, from http://articles.latimes.com/2007/jan/28/news/adfg-sexy28

[6] Ho, E.S.C., LAM, C.C., and WONG, N.Y. (2002). Parents’ Beliefs and Practices in Education in Confucian Heritage Cultures: The Hong Kong Case. Journal of Southeast Asian Education, 3(1), 99-114.

[7] The World Bank Group (2014). Fertility Rate, Total (Births per women). Retrieved on April 12, 2014, from http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.TFRT.IN

[8] Ministry of Culture, P.R. China (2003). The Almighty Dragon. Retrieved on April 12, 2014, from http://www.chinaculture.org/gb/en_chinaway/2004-02/25/content_45896.htm

[9] Takoaka, N. (2013, December 12). Asian students still ace world rankings. Nikkei Asian Review. Retrieved on April  13, 2014, from http://asia.nikkei.com/print/article/8662

[10] Ng, Y.H. (2009, June 1).  In Hong Kong, Cram School Teachers’ Image Rivals Pop Stars’. New York Times. Retrieved on April 13, 2014,from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/01/business/global/01iht-cramside.html?_r=0

[11] Corren, A. (2009, November 10). Hong Kong’s ‘celebrity tutors’ turn millionaires. Cable News Netowrk. Retrieved on April 13, 2014 from http://edition.cnn.com/2009/BUSINESS/11/08/hong.kong.celebrity.tutors/index.html

[12] The Independent (2011, June 5). Exam-obsessed Hong Kong makes celebrity tutors rich. Retrieved on April 12, 2014, from http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/examobsessed-hong-kong-makes-celebrity-tutors-rich-2293297.html

[13] Lui, M. (2007, January 28). Hot for teacher in Hong Kong. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved on April 12, 2014, from http://articles.latimes.com/2007/jan/28/news/adfg-sexy28

[14] Sharma, Y (2012, November 27). Meet the “tutor kings and queens”. The BBC. Retrieved on April 12, 2014, from http://www.bbc.com/news/business-20085558

[15] Asian Development Bank (2012). ADB Study Highlights Dark Side of ‘Shadow Education’. Retrieved on April 12, 2014, from http://www.adb.org/news/adb-study-highlights-dark-side-shadow-education

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