Tuition madness, Gangnam style

Tuition madness, Gangnam style

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.




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.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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