The high cost of our 'free' education

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 September, 2007, 12:00am

Whenever there is market inefficiency, there is someone ready to exploit it. That's how all capitalist markets work. Our supposedly 'free' public education is such a glaring example of inefficiency that it has made many people rich.

So, a new school year, another record profit year for private tutorial schools? Well, I don't know that for sure, but I would bet on it. A Primary Two, high-scoring student I know at my son's so-called elite local Chinese school has three private tutors every day - for English, Chinese and maths. For their services, his parents pay up to HK$6,000 a month. And his case is not all that unusual.

You have probably heard of such tutors, who enjoy pop-star status in the media, with their opulent lifestyles featured, interestingly, in society and investment magazines instead of educational ones. They have inspired legions of publicly employed, de- motivated teachers to follow their example.

But the people who own these schools make even more money. One can imagine that, by the size and scope of their services and the numbers of people employed, private tutorials amount to a sizeable industry that makes a significant contribution to the overall economy.

There are 393,000 primary school students and 467,000 secondary-school pupils who are locals, as opposed to expatriates. For argument's sake, suppose 50 per cent of them take at least one outside-school tutorial class or hire a private tutor for a key academic subject, averaging HK$1,000 a month. (These figures are surely conservative, and we are not including extracurricular sports and music.)

This translates into HK$5.16 billion a year. That is equivalent to more than 19 per cent of the HK$26.7 billion the government spent on primary and secondary education in the past financial year. But ask yourself this: if our schools are working properly, why should parents be paying through the roof for their children to attend private tutorials? A decade of education reforms does not seem to have made any difference to this systemic dysfunction.

In February, the then Education and Manpower Bureau - since restructured as the Education Bureau - released a paper saying there was no conclusive evidence in favour of small classes. Based on the preliminary results of a four-year study at 37 primary schools, it said there was 'insufficient evidence to demonstrate that pupils in small classes fared better ... in terms of academic performance and motivation'. This conclusion was counterintuitive, and most people simply dismissed it at the time. But, within the narrow focus of the study, it makes perfect sense that small classes do not automatically mean better grades, at least not in the Hong Kong context.

At most of the so-called elite and 'better' schools - which are essentially cram schools - class sizes don't matter. The top half will score 'As' whether you have 20 or 40 students per class; the parents and their hired tutors will make sure of that. What the teachers teach in class - especially in a large one - is often lost on young pupils, but no matter: the students absorb their lessons and prepare for continuous tests and exams through a massive amount of nighttime homework and outside-school tutorials.

Though home schooling is illegal in Hong Kong, I would argue that our dysfunctional public system is only sustained by what amounts to de facto home schooling, with help from private tutorials at great cost to parents. If tutors are not hired, it is usually because the parents or other relatives serve as full-time tutors themselves.

Just as our high property costs are the indirect, de facto tax we all pay for our supposedly low-tax regime, our public education is not 'free'. For a middle-class family, the mandatory nine-year 'free' public education may cost as much as a private or international school education, and this is not counting the psychological cost.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post