Supplementary education now comes in the form of digital tuition (picture courtesy World Bank)

(Second installment in a series of articles)

Shadow education, supplementary education, or whatever the moniker one may use, private tuition has become a necessary evil, ironically even in countries that have a well-established free education systems. When the majority of students attend private tuition classes, those who do not do so are at a direct disadvantage. Supplementary tuition has become a way of life in many Asian countries.

As discussed in the previous article in this series, private tuition encourages social inequality. Regulating shadow education will go a long way in establishing social equity in education as well as ensuring efficiency of the mainstream education system. Moreover, policy intervention measures must be method specific to various forms of private tuition that range from individual, small and medium to mass scale and digital, which may may transcend national and even regional boundaries.

Similar to the Grade Five Scholarship Examination in Sri Lanka, the Primary School Leaving Examination in Singapore is a major selection test. Children start Scholarship Exam tuition from Grade Three in Sri Lanka. The scenario is not much different elsewhere in Asia. According to Mark Bray and Chad Lykins’ comprehensive study, titled ‘Shadow Education: Private Supplementary Tutoring and its Implications for Policy Makers in Asia’, nearly 90 percent of elementary students receive some sort of shadow education in the Republic of Korea and in Hong Kong, China, about 85 percent of senior secondary students do. In West Bengal, India, nearly 60 percent of primary school students receive private supplementary tutoring and in Kazakhstan a similar percentage of senior secondary level students do so.

Bray and Lykins observe that in East Asia, including Japan, Republic of Korea and Taipei, China has a long tradition of private tuition; they opine that this can be linked to Confucian traditions, which value educational achievement and see educational qualifications as a route to personal development as well as the elevation of family social stature.

Modes of private tuition

As observed throughout Asia, the subjects that often require tuition are mathematics, the national language, and an international language such as English. For example, in Sri Lanka over 90% of the student population receives private tuition for mathematics, over 70% for science and nearly 70% for English.

In Sri Lanka, mass tuition classes can cater to thousands of students at a time. Asankha Pallegedara, in ‘Demand for Private Tuition Classes under the Free Education Policy: Evidence Based on Sri Lanka’, points out that since most of these classes are held in main cities, students from rural areas have to travel impractically long distances for classes.

Shadow education has evolved to such an extent that some tuition providers offer ‘learning in advance’ instead of shadow education. Jong-Tai Lee, Yang-Boon Kim, and Cho-Hee Yoon observe in their KEDI Journal of Educational Policy titled, ‘The Effects of Pre-Class Tutoring on Student Achievement: Challenges and Implications for Public Education in Korea’, that this ‘pre-learning’ has become a significant phenomenon in the Republic of Korea, where some hagwons (for-profit private academy) teach students for two months during the vacation before the beginning of the academic year, staying well ahead of the school curriculum throughout the academic year. This has proved a major problem for mainstream educators since a certain percentage of students who do not get private tuition have not learned the subjects and lag behind others.

On the other hand rather than repeating the school subjects private tuition in some countries have evolved by adopting new teaching approaches and content different from that of the mainstream school curriculum. This is what has made the Japanese Jukus so popular among students.

Digital tuition is an intriguing trend in the evolution of supplementary education. Live tutoring, DVD study packs, interactive learning, e-learning whatever the methods used, the basic principle of the Digital Classroom is to transcend physical boundaries, by hybridizing digital and physical workspaces. In developed countries, the concept of the digital classroom has developed so much so that the entire gamut of teaching tools from games, interactive whiteboard to augmented reality technology is utilized. Google Classroom and Khan Academy are prime examples for web-based digital education platforms.

Being a relatively modern variation of tuition, digital tuition is a fairly novel phenomenon in Sri Lanka. However, Sri Lanka does have its own versions of virtual classrooms in sites like But with lower digital literacy and internet use, Sri Lanka is a little slow on the uptake. ‘Web Patashala’, a TV based educational programme introduced by the Education Ministry, did not achieve expected popularity. Rupavahini conducts ‘Jathika Pasala’, Sirasa ‘A3’, ITN ‘Thaksalawa’, but has little appeal to city-based students.

CD tutorials are catching up fast in the education market. Of course, there’s nothing new about CD tutorials. From DVD tutorials for international exams such as IELTS, TESL to DVD spoken English lessons, they have been available in the Sri Lankan market for years. CD study material, with accompanying textbook may seem like the ideal substitute for those who cannot make the trip to a major city, like Colombo, Gampaha or Galle to attend large private tuition classes. A major benefit of digital material is that they can be accessed anytime and students don’t have to spend hours in buses commuting to classes.

Digitizing education could lead to a more resourceful and autonomous student population, with the added benefit of it being paperless and thereby reducing the ecological footprint of tuition. Digital material leaves individual students, literally to their own devices. This may go a long way towards teaching students to be resourceful, but may effectively kill competition, a characteristic that has made mass tuition classes so popular.

Whatever mode tuition takes, often the motivation and capabilities of students as well as tuition teachers are driving factors that determine whether tuition can deliver on promised results, literally.

Need for regulation

Private tuition has been a subject of discussion in Sri Lanka since 1943. According to the Report of the Special Committee on Education (1943), Sessional Paper XXIV, Colombo: Ceylon Government Press, quoted by A.V Suraweera in his Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara Memorial Lecture in 2011, titled ‘Dr. Kannangara’s Free Education Proposals in Relation to the Subsequent Expansion of the Tuition Industry’, the Special Committee on Education was particularly critical of the examination-oriented ‘coaching centres’.

“The view of the committee was that the emphasis of these centres on rote learning undermined the broad purposes of education. The report further warned that, ‘parents frequently provide private coaches whose whole justification is that they will get their pupils through examinations. Coaching establishments which do not pretend to educate at all, flourish.

“We strongly deprecate the practice too frequently adopted by many parents of supplementing the school work by private coaching. In the end”, it destroys its object by making the student incapable of originality and initiative.”

Private tuition has become  deeply entrenched in Sri Lanka, with classes mushrooming everywhere.
Private tuition has become deeply entrenched in Sri Lanka, with classes mushrooming everywhere.

Failure to heed such warnings has resulted in the mushrooming of private tuition classes, to a level that ‘tuition’ has become deeply ingrained in the society. Suraweera, and K. Sujatha and Geetha Rani in ‘Management of Secondary Education in India’ identify social competition and teachers’ willingness to use the student population as a market to boost their income as the driving forces of the tuition phenomenon. Parents having a disposable income and the access to private tuition are, of course, secondary factors that have contributed to the expansion of the private tuition industry.

The major problem in Sri Lanka as in many countries, as pointed out by Bray and Lykins, is that those who provide such tuition have no training requirement and the process of tuition, an informal industry in itself, also goes unmonitored since it does not fall under the purview of any government authority. According to them, in general, private tutoring is poorly supervised and inadequately regulated.

In many countries, the issue of supplementary tuition has not entered the policymaking arena as policymakers have conveniently chosen to ignore it. But in this case, where education is at stake, ignorance cannot be bliss. Rather than ignoring the tuition phenomenon all together, policymakers should attempt to find out why it exists in the first place.

Whether it is the school teachers’ lack of thoroughness, syllabus not being covered at length, lack of attention to individual students or simply the ineptitude of the teachers, the reason for the existence of a shadow education, in most Asian cases, is a shortfall or a combination of shortcomings in mainstream education, which is provided at school. But individual cases maybe more complex.

For example, in Sri Lanka, though one or more of the aforesaid factors may have contributed to making supplementary tuition desirable in the first place, it has become a way of life.

Shadow education as in the case of any other new sociological trend has desirable as well as undesirable variations. Monitoring goes a long way in effectively putting a stop to substandard forms of supplementary tuition though educationists have observed that the private tuition market has an effective method of self-cleansing that does not allow substandard educators to survive in the market.

Shadow education can have both positive and negative dimensions and the challenge for the policymakers is to mitigate the negative while enhancing on the positive.


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