Allow me to respond to various writings recently published in the Straits Times: “China bars for-profit tutoring in core school subjects“, a letter to the ST Forum, “Should China’s curbs on tuition be looked at here?” and “China cracking down on private tuition: A lesson for Singapore?“.
It would be a mistake to blame the tuition industry for mental and emotional health issues that our youths may experience. The tuition industry has grown over the years due to increased demand arising from increased affluence, higher expectations and along with that greater competitive pressures involved in securing enrolments into top universities, courses and careers. My views are confirmed by the students themselves at a recent Ministerial dialogue.
The key is to tackle the root causes and to also adopt a well-calibrated approach. I think, in recent years, the Singapore Government has made the right moves to reduce fixation on academic grades (for example by not disclosing the name of the PSLE top scorer as well as broadening the criteria for PSC Scholarships and public service career advancements). The government has also sought to reduce stress in the education system (for example, tweaks to streaming in Secondary schools and adopting score bands for PSLE scores). These should, over time, reduce fixation on grades and competitive pressures, helping students, parents and educators feel less stressed. This is why I drew this years ago to provoke thought and discussion.
As an economics tutor and owner of a small tuition business, I often remind my students that they should be learning for life, rather than to score an A, which would at best provide some short-term success but certainly not long-term success. Through sharings in class and blog posts, I inspire all my students to apply economic concepts to improve decision making for their personal lives, for their future careers (whatever they may be) and to contribute to society. As a tutor, I constantly coach them to think, analyse and ask questions, and even how to actually learn effectively, which are skills that are sorely lacking among many students. I shy away from tuition drills – which sounds to me like “machine learning”. You can read what Benjamin, an ex-student from DHS had to say about my lessons – “Tuition Drills? No!!! @ The Economics Tutor, Mr. Kelvin Hong grills, thrills & fills!”.
Through the course of the programme, I also often remind them of qualities that will determine long-term success, such as attentiveness, perseverance, diligence and gratefulness. These are also qualities I have observed in many top students I have had the privilege to teach and help nurture. When time permits, I also try to inspire them through my professional experiences in Government and also as an entrepreneur.
I think many of my past students would attest to the positive impact I have made on their lives, beyond the good grades they received. This should be very evident if one bothers to read through some of the testimonials by my students. “Ironically”, most still do very well with about 80-90% scoring As (A Levels) or 7s (IB). I believe it is because when they have learnt to think, learnt to learn, enjoy the learning, are inspired to learn and excel – it all just clicks. Unfortunately, there are some parents and students who cannot stomach the journey with me. Some ask me to “just tell him what he should write in the exams”, which reminds me of that deviously ingenious national exams cheating case involving a tuition centre. And some students just prefer to copy and memorise…all ready to be replaced by AI!!! (Which by the way won’t work for Economics at this level…higher order thinking skills required.)
In short, tutors can and should make a positive contribution to society. Tuition should not be viewed as a “demerit good”. The tuition industry can and should be a healthy complement to the MOE education system. Parents and students should learn to be more discerning and opt for tutors and programmes that will inspire and positively impact beyond grades. Mental and emotional health of our youths and in fact of our entire nation is another highly complex and multi-faceted issue altogether, which certainly will not be solved and may even escalate with curbs on tuition.
In today’s online world, it would also be impossible to ban or curb the tuition industry, which need not have any physical presence in the country. I think China will experience some difficulties in enforcing their regulatory curbs on the tuition industry, and their policies may possibly even backfire as parents may have to incur greater stress and financial burden to secure the tuition services they still badly want, given that the unhealthy fixation on academic grades remains untackled. That is why it is so important to tackle the root causes – how we define success and how to get there.
There was mention of “tuition school operators in Hong Kong” becoming “billionaires”. I am extremely far from becoming one and certainly do not begrudge any other tutor or tuition centre owner being one, as they could well deserve it for great work done. This should not be a reason to be anti-tuition. In any market, there will be very successful entrepreneurs who deserve their earnings.
Concerns were also brought up about how tuition could worsen the issue of rising income inequality and I fully agree on this point. For some time now, I do feel for children from lower-income families who are unable to afford top quality tuition programmes. Personally, I have always extended discounts and waivers in such cases, as long as they are genuine. In support, for this year, my company would be happy to offer FREE economics tuition to existing JC1 and IB Year 5 students from low-income families (per capita gross monthly household income of not more than $625.). Registration fees and all lesson fees will be entirely waived for their entire JC or IB years of schooling. For the first 20 eligible students. Please share this with those who may qualify. Do note that abusers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again. Boosters may be needed.
I hope this will inspire more tuition providers to improve, to contribute to long-term success and we will therefore be part of the solution to educate our young and also promote a more inclusive society. Let us walk the talk together.
This is why curbing the tuition industry is not the right answer. Good try but please try again.
Your Cher, Kelvin Hong