Levelling the tutorial playing field for pupils struggling to pay for studies

Expensive additional tutoring is out of reach for many Hong Kong students, but a group of volunteers is addressing the situation, writes Linda Yeung

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 March, 2013, 9:59am

Chris Fung Hong-way is trying to do his bit to help students also from Hong Kong struggling with their studies.

Since late last year, Fung, a second-year student at the University of California, Berkeley, has been running a free online platform to help his fellow students find tutors. It is among a host of online platforms that have sprung up to support them.

Fung founded Defind with his former schoolfriend Jason Leung Cheuk-man. Both are concerned that many students are lured more by the star appeal of tutor "kings and queens" than by the learning itself.

Far from impressed with the large tutorial school advertisements on buses and MTR platforms, Fung says: "The tutoring industry is too commercialised. At one of the famous chains, students can only see the so-called tutor king on the screen, showing his lecture in rooms crammed with students. They can't see him in person or ask him questions."

By comparison, Defind's tutors are university students.

Unlike some online agencies that deprive students of the chance to meet tutors before their first lesson, Defind gives them total freedom to choose their tutors.

"Very often, tutors are underpaid by tutoring agencies which charge commissions. Sometimes, the tutors cannot find students despite the large number of primary and secondary school students in need of tutoring. We see a mismatch of resources due to lack of information," says Fung.

Tutoring is a global phenomenon, and its prevalence in Asia has attracted international media attention. A TV crew from Britain's Channel 4 were in Hong Kong recently to shoot a documentary on the trend of students heading to tutorial schools or centres straight after their regular lessons. A University of Hong Kong study in 2011 showed that 72 per cent of local Form Six students received tutoring help. Many better-off students attend tutorial schools.

James Wong, a Form Five student who attended a tutorial school to help him in Putonghua, says they tend to be examination-orientated. "They help you get 5* or 5** in the Diploma of Secondary Education exam. The lessons teach you tactics like how to eliminate wrong answers in multiple choice questions. But they did not really improve my language skills," he says.

Tuition for one subject alone requires at least three to four hours a week...more than HK$1,000 a month...which poor families can't afford
Andy Ho, HK volunteer tutors

Describing the HKDSE as "one of the most difficult examinations in the world", Fung sympathises with students who come under pressure. Children from poor families are at a disadvantage.

"The local university admission system's emphasis on students' grades puts those from families who can afford expensive tutoring at an advantage," says Fung. "In the US, university admission looks at a whole range of factors, including an applicant's history of community service. Friends who went to high school in the US look happy. Students in the US have broad perspectives and diverse interests."

He is grateful for the English tutor he had when he was in upper primary. He says a good tutor is one who is communicates and enjoys the work, and is not driven solely by money.

"He or she makes you feel that you are not alone; it could be someone who has taken the examination that the student is preparing for, and can share their experience with him."

In a similar venture, the Hong Kong Volunteer Tutors website targets students from impoverished backgrounds. The easy-to-navigate website sends an e-mail alert to registered volunteers - including university students, serving teachers and lawyers - every time a student in their district requests help with the subject in which they specialise.

"Helping children enter university is a way to help families break out of inter-generational poverty," says founder Andy Ho Chun-kin. "About 30 to 40 per cent of our students are retaking the HKDSE. Many work as waiters and study at the same time. They want to change their lives. Pushed a little harder and with more support, they could get into university."

About 600 students have registered so far, choosing from a pool of more than 400 tutors.

Free tutoring is vital for poor families, when an hour's lesson in a crammed tutorial class costs more than HK$100.

"Tuition for one subject alone requires at least three to four hours a week. That comes to more than HK$1,000 a month - an amount that many poor families can't afford," says Ho.

Technology has played a large part in helping poorer students. Online interactive tutorials are cheaper than face-to-face lessons.

As well as their regular class teaching, tutors at Prologue answer questions posted online.

Mark Bray, the Unesco chair professor of comparative education and director of the Comparative Education Research Centre at HKU, is known for his extensive research into private tutoring, which he labels a "shadow education system". He is concerned about the quality of tutoring.

"For the interactive websites, some focus is needed on pedagogy and ways of learning. We are also becoming aware of the reduced social interaction of young people who are so focused on electronic communications."

On personal tutoring, whether conducted on a one-on-one basis or in class, he says: "University students are not mature, and there is not much reason to assume that they are good at tutoring.

"Much depends on personality and skills, and I don't see them receiving any training. Also, we have seen a few cases of child abuse, not only in other societies, but also in Hong Kong.

"We have concerns that the over-reliance on tutors and tutoring could negatively affect the development of some students. There can also be a backlash for schools, particularly if they assume that students already have tutors," he says.

But projects by the likes of Fung and Ho still come as a relief to students who are caught up in Hong Kong's hugely competitive education system.

"My campus life in the US is not too busy, so I will try to make the site more user-friendly," says Fung. "Money is not our priority; we just want to help each other out."