Regulating tuition, and introduction
It goes by various monikers—jukus in Japan, hagwons in the Republic of Korea and buxiban in Taiwan. It is generally known as private tuition and coaching in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and of course, Sri Lanka. ‘Private tuition’ involves lessons of academic subjects offered for a fee, as one-to-one basis, small or large groups or as online or digital material. It is also widely known as shadow education, a metaphor used for its mimicking of the school system.
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, pointed out that 92.4 percent of 2,578 students in a Grade 10 and 98.0 percent of 884 Grade 12 students were receiving tutoring, according to surveys. Moreover, P.D.J. Gunasekara in ‘A Study of the Attendance Patterns of G.C.E. (A/L) Student at School’, in Sri Lankan Journal of Educational Research (2009), indicated that senior secondary students in Sri Lanka were spending 15 to 21 hours a week in extra classes.
The issue of supplementary tuition is a global phenomenon, not exclusive to Sri Lanka. According to a 2011/12 survey 53.8 percent of Grade 9 students and 71.8 percent of Grade 12 students received private supplementary tutoring in Hong Kong. A 2012 Indian survey indicated that 73.0 percent of children aged six to 14 in rural West Bengal received tutoring. Year 2006 survey data indicates that 32.0 percent of primary students in Vietnam were received tutoring, and the list goes on.
Private tuition, as the phenomenon is popularly dubbed in Sri Lanka has far reaching economic and social implications, aside from the fact that it directly influences the school system. While it can be a tool for personal development, it can exacerbate social inequality in that the deciding factor in obtaining tuition is money. In the paper ‘Demand for Private Tutoring in a Free Education Country: The Case of Sri Lanka’ in International Journal of Education Economics and Development (2012), Asankha Pallegedara has pointed out that, based on 2006/07 survey data, among 10,677 households with students aged 6 to 21, 64 percent spent money on private tutoring.
Somalatha Subasinghe’s 1982 stage play Vikurthi (Distortion), and this song in particular fittingly dramatized to resemble the monotonous, mechanical bahaviour of tuition goers, highlights a major problem that has plagued the education system in Sri Lanka for decades—supplementary tuition. At that time, many critics predicted that the play would lose its meaning when the issues that it discusses died out, but the ‘tuition problem’ has only worsened over the decades. From individual classes to mass ones and digital platforms, the diversity Sri Lanka’s supplementary tuition has reached in the short span of a few decades, would put many Asian countries to shame. While it can be a tool for personal development, left unchecked, shadow education could have far reaching economic and social repercussions.
Low and middle income earning parents are often forced to endure considerable economic pressure in order to cater to their child’s tuition needs to be on par with the rest of the student population. And those who have money to get as much supplementary tutoring as needed do so while the have nots are at a disadvantage. Mark Bray and Ora Kwo in their comprehensive study of policy options for supplementary education in Asia, titled ‘Regulating Private Tutoring for Public Good’ (2014), point out that this is in direct contravention of the UNESCO-led agenda of equitable access to quality education for all.
Moreover, private tuition reinforces only one aspect of education: learning to know, while learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be are conveniently sidelined.
It is a steady source of income for tutors in Sri Lanka and many tuition providing school teachers may tend to focus more attention on their private classes and thereby neglect their duties, causing a negative backwash on the education system. In fact, providing tuition for a fee is frowned upon in countries such as Hong Kong, where school teachers are well-paid and this acts as a natural means of tuition in check.
Left unchecked ‘private tuition’ can have irreversible adverse repercussions. In light of such consequence and despite its ‘private’ prefix, the government is responsible for the quality and impact of private tuition.
Although government oversight of the tuition sector is an immediate necessity Bray and Kwo warn of the dangers of imposing regulations without proper design and consideration for possible unintended consequences. They observe that discrepancies in policy and practice call for a complete overhaul of private tuition regulations in some countries while some governments have completely ignored policing tuition either due to other priorities or lack of vision on how to formulate productive overview measures.
But regulating private tuition providers is not without pitfalls, the requirement of the necessary number of personnel to conduct systematic monitoring being one such.
However, supplementary tuition has proved to be an obstinately necessary evil. Bray and Kwo observe that shadow education has become entrenched in society and a social norm in countries such as Sri Lanka and the Republic of Korea. It is a habit hard to shake, but not one totally devoid of benefits.
Shadow education may help slow learners who have been neglected by the school system, to catch up while allowing fast learners to further excel. But the best and most valid argument in favour of private tuition is that the syllabus cannot possibly be covered in such detail, as done in tuition classes, at school. Besides, individual or small group classes can easily be specifically targeted to cater to individual student needs while special attention can hardly be afforded to individual students in a school classroom of approximately 40 students or even more in some cases.
Consequently, private tuition must not be stifled with over regulation and Asian governments like that of Sri Lanka must strike a balance between their capacity for regulation and the overall health of the tuition industry.