How Hong Kong's Billion-Dollar Tutoring Industry Reflects Systemic Issues with Our Education System

By Joanne Yau
Published on December 12th, 2020

From playgroups for kindergarten, to DSE preparation for university admissions, , supplementary tutoring has been surrounding our lives since we were born. The 'monster parent' DNA of fearing that their kids will be 'missing out' that stems in Hong Kong has exacerbated the tutoring culture. Along with entrenched social expectations of academic achievement, these factors fuel the billion-dollar-worth industry in Hong Kong.

Students' Mentality Behind the Tutoring Culture

It seems logical that most students go to tutorial classes because they are not doing well at school, but studies have shown that this may not be the case. One study conducted by Professor Mark Bray found that the majority of the students who go to tutorial classes are not academically delinquent, but have indeed been doing well in school even before attending tutorial classes.

‘Then why attend tutorial classes?' This question leads to the second conclusion drawn by Bray - students do not actually gain new knowledge from these tutorial classes, but rather a sense of security. Top students are flocking to tutorial classes not necessarily because they need them, but rather from peer pressure. In such a situation, being the only one who does not go to tutorial classes makes them feel as though they are 'falling behind', even when they are already getting good grades.

The Mechanism of Tutoring

If you are one of the 69% of students who attend supplementary tutorial classes in Hong Kong, you would be familiar with how tutorials work. Unlike mainstream institutions, tutorial centers do not aim to instill new knowledge to students. Instead, they build on the knowledge that students have attained from regular lessons at school and consolidate them by repetitive practices. Another common appeal is predicting questions that may appear in public examinations. This allows students to be familiarized with these question types, so that they can outperform their counterparts who have not encountered these questions in exams.

As shown, tutorial centers do not innovate teaching or learning methods, instead, they just adapt the existing mode of education in the mainstream education system. That is where the term 'shadow education' originates - as suggested, its existence is merely produced by that of an existing education system. Yet, what is the cause of its existence? What gives birth to such a 'shadow'?

Why Mainstream Institutions Fail to Do the Job

As previously discussed, what tutorial centers do is basically repeating and building on what schools are doing, then why can't the schools do them as well? Why do students seek external help from tutorial centers rather than their schools? What makes private tutors better than teachers?

Quoting from Professor Bray's paper, “schools in some countries may be perceived by pupils to be less able to cater for their specific needs”. In a class of 40 pupils, the abilities to learn among pupils vary, and oftentimes the gap is large. Thus, makes it difficult for teachers to address the needs of each student. However, class sizes in tutoring lessons are usually smaller, allowing for greater flexibility in teaching speed and style. Moreover, apart from group tutoring, some students may also take private tutorial lessons on a one-on-one basis. In this case, tutors can better accommodate the needs of individual students. For instance, they can clarify basic concepts for students who have difficulties in understanding the topic in class, while advanced exercises can be given to students with higher capability.

In addition, teachers at mainstream institutions can rarely provide supplementary works that tutorial centers offer. Although providing extra exercises and predicting exam questions may not appear challenging, given the existing administrative responsibilities of teachers, it is unlikely that teachers can do as good a job as the tutors. Nonetheless, this does not have much to do with the teachers' ability, it is rather the lack of incentive to go for an extra mile. Under the bureaucratic system in a mainstream institution, these extra efforts paid and extra time spent are not often reflected in the salary they receive. According to the 2017 annual report of Modern Education, one of the top private tutoring schools in Hong Kong, the top five paid tutors earned between HK $2 million and $10.5 million in annual salaries. Though this is just an anecdote, it is impossible for teachers to earn such astounding salaries, simply because the education mainstream institutions provide is not meant to be a ‘business’. Not to mention the work from other positions like class teacher or department head teachers have to manage as well. Even with an ardent passion about teaching, such overwhelming workload may restrict their ability to provide supplementary works. As a result, tutoring 'overshadows' mainstream education.

Systemic Issues with our Education System

Above all, this is not about the inability of mainstream schools, but the systematic issues with the education system in Hong Kong. Although mainstream schools do introduce exam-oriented teaching to prepare students for public exams, most people still believe that passing on the knowledge is the core value of education. Yet, the problem lies in that students prefer tutorial classes than schools as they focus on training up exam skills a lot more, which to them, seems more 'pragmatic'. Such mentality of the students should have us all rethink our education system and societal values. Why do students value grades over learning? Is the society putting too much focus on public examination results and scores?

Pause and think again: when the sole functions of teachers are to predict examination questions and give repetitive training, when students have become machines that memorize without comprehending, where is the meaning of our education? 'Our children are the future pillars of our nation, and education is the foundation upon which we build our society.' Yet, with our current education system, what sort of future will our society have?

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