The South Korean Tutoring Boom

The South Korean Tutoring Boom

An insight into one of the world's top 5 academic performing countries, by Chris Hislop

The private tutoring industry in South Korea is worth an estimated $17 billion compared with $10 billion in the UK. Korean parents are happily paying out large sums to tutors that market themselves like rock stars, in an attempt to get their children in to elite schools and colleges.


The country was recently ranked in the top 5 worldwide in a global test of academic knowledge and children are spending more time learning than ever. However, this massive boom in the tutoring industry hasn’t been met with universal approval.


Competition For Tutoring Places


Most South Korean parents believe that the only way that their children can get ahead of their peers is with a little extra help. In a society where success is measured in exam results, this anxiety dictates that nearly 90 per cent of primary students receive some form of additional tutoring.


As a result, South Korea is now a country that boasts a 93% high school graduation rate and 56% of young adults finish college. So, just who are the tutors responsible for such a dramatic rise in standards?


Teaching Mega-Stars


In a Wall Street Journal article, South Korean tutor Kim Ki-Hoon revealed that he makes $4 million a year. His salary places him in the company of very high-earning Premier League footballers and in South Korea, he's considered a celebrity, something not usually associated with education.


As a teacher at one of the country’s ‘hagwons’, or after-school tutoring academies, Ki-Hoon teaches English via paid Internet videos. The eye-watering salary he commands is made possible by a performance-based system that rewards those tutors demanding the most interest from pupils.


That’s not to say that Kim doesn’t have to put in the hours. He regularly works 60 hour weeks, where he juggles developing lesson plans, responding to students requests for help, writing accompanying textbooks and 3 hours lecturing.


‘The harder I work, the more I make. I like that.’


Kim and the rest of South Korea’s ‘rockstar’ tutors are fortunate that South Korean parents are willing to spend close to 25% of their annual income on education, according to Edutech Associates. Whilst, it could be reasonably argued that some of these earnings are excessive, pupils do appear to have benefited from the added tuition.


A 2010 survey of 6,600 high school students found that South Korean pupils rated their tutors significantly higher than their normal high school teachers. In addition, they found their tutors to be ‘better prepared, more devoted to teaching and more respectful of students’ opinions.’


A Global Model to Follow?


On paper, it would appear that the South Korean  ‘free-market’ approach to education is one that the rest of the world would do well to replicate. After all, only 60 years ago, most of the country was illiterate and now they outperform the United States in academic excellence on a frequent basis.


However, there are a growing number of detractors lining up to criticize the country’s private tutoring industry. A BBC article from 2013 looked at the average day of one particular 16-year-old South Korean student. Hye-Min Park sits through an 8 hour high school day before taking up to 5 hours of extra tuition at her hagwon. The demand that this places on students is frequently questioned, and the government is cracking down.


A specifically-designed website reports tutors working past the newly enforced 10pm curfew and investigators trawl the city for students still at the desks of their hagwons long into the night. It's not just the duration of time students are spending in private tuition but also the fact that much of the tuition is being undertaken exclusively to ‘cram’ for exams, and this is raising eyebrows. Former minister of education Lee Jun Ho recognizes parents’ willingness to support their children’s education but feels it could be better directed.


‘But that energy has been spent on raising test scores, not nurturing creativity or any other aspect of human nature’, he commented in an interview.


What Next for Tutoring in South Korea?


In a country where parents feel that they cannot afford to opt out of private tutoring, it could be suggested that the percentage of children attending hagwons will continue to rise. However, the relentless pressure placed on both students and families has seen government officials begin to redress the balance. In a country plagued by the highest suicide rates in the OECD, this would represent a welcome step for some. Education Minister Nam Soo Suh made mention of the government’s new tact in a BBC article last year.


"We still have a long way to go but we are doing some soul-searching in our society, and our goals now are about how to make our people happier."


Arguably, South Korea has progressed faster than any other country over the last 50 years; however, it's becoming apparent that the incredible work ethic involved in getting there has taken its toll on the country’s people. And with students continuing to study for longer than ever, the question of whether the benefits of the current model outweigh the downsides is being raised.


Do you feel that we could learn from the South Korean private tutoring model? We’d love to hear your thoughts below.


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