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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Banning Tutors

In education-obsessed Asia, the move is both wrong and futile


ARE KOREAN PARENTS OVERLY preoccupied with getting the best possible education for their children? In a Confucian culture that reveres learning, the very question seems preposterous. Yet the Seoul government has taken some unusual steps to rein in parents it feels are spending too much on improving their offspring's prospects. Starting next year, it will be illegal for Koreans to hire private teachers, or kwawoe, in subjects other than arts or music for all students below university level. Seoul says it wants to curb excessive spending on tutors and reduce a burgeoning, mostly untaxed, service industry dominated by foreigners. It also seeks to promote egalitarianism among students by disallowing parents a chance to buy their children a superior education.

The authorities' move is not entirely without justification. Last year, Koreans spent $25 billion -- or fully 150% of the government's education budget -- on kwawoe. The cost to individual families is staggering. A household typically spends $1,950 a year on tutoring for a single secondary-school student and $1,500 on a child in primary school. Many families are said to spend up to half their income on private teachers. Moreover, while there are no official statistics on the number of overstayers or illegal migrants teaching English in Korea, the government says 30,000 were either deported or asked to leave last year, a 20% rise over 1995. Korean banks are reportedly on the lookout for foreigners with unusually large accounts.

Koreans themselves are increasingly opposed to kwawoe. A recent opinion poll found support among nearly half of respondents for a complete ban on the practice. A third of them want to maintain a partial prohibition that has been in place since 1980, restricting private tutoring for primary-school students. That ban, however, has been a near-total failure. Surveys show that fully 90% of primary-school students receive instruction outside school.

The ban's failure is as predictable as it is noteworthy. It has not worked in the past and will not work in the future. In Korea and elsewhere in East Asia, education has supreme social and cultural importance. That has been underscored not only by parents' sacrifices for their children in this regard, but also by the region's remarkable economic achievements. Asians know that neither their children nor their societies could have attained so much without the skills and discipline inculcated by sound education.

Besides, even if spending on tutors were ruinous for average Koreans, they would continue to do it as long as they felt public schools were not doing their job properly. "Frankly, I'm in no mood to have my children educated in Korea, where systems are changed so often and schools fail to fulfill their duties," says one parent who is sending her son to school in the United States.

Such complaints, in fact, point to the way forward. The Korean government must provide in public education what parents are now obliged to buy privately. There is cause for hope in Seoul's response to a related problem. The government is dismayed by the "loss" of bright, young Koreans to education overseas. According to the Ministry of Finance and Economy, 1,261 secondary students went abroad for their schooling between March 1994 and February 1995. The following year, the number topped 2,200. Far more have gone overseas to attend university.

The authorities responded flexibly and imaginatively. They allowed tertiary institutions at home to open classes together with leading foreign counterparts. New regulations now permit professors from abroad to teach in jointly managed courses in Korea. And next year, foreign universities will be able to open branch campuses around the country. By providing better educational opportunities at home, the government hopes to keep more of Korea's best and brightest from leaving.

For Korean authorities to address their own shortcomings in primary and secondary education by banning private tutors is a bit like trying to eliminate robbery by ensuring that the entire population is poor. In an increasingly competitive Asia, it makes no sense at all to legislate in favor of the lowest common denominator. The fact that teachers of English are a prime target of the new curbs merely underscores the unfulfilled demand in Korea for adequate instruction in the world's top business and international language.

Rather than undertake a quixotic quest to deny parents their right to educate their children as they see fit, Korean authorities should work on improving the nation's quality of education as well as access to it. If they manage to do so, the demand for private tutors will naturally decline. Given that citizens now spend one and a half times as much on private education as the entire budget for the public system, there is clearly room to increase official expenditure -- provided taxpayers feel they are getting their money's worth. Korean parents are obviously committed to achieving quality education for their children. The government should provide the means, not erect obstacles, to that end.


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