Meet the 'tutor kings and queens'

Exam pressure has turned Hong Kong's top tutors into celebrities

They strike glamorous poses in posters in shopping malls and on the sides of buses.

But they are not movie stars or supermodels: they are Hong Kong's A-list "tutor kings" and "tutor queens", offering pupils a chance to improve mediocre grades.

In Hong Kong's consumer culture, looks sell. Celebrity tutors in their sophisticated hair-dos and designer trappings are treated like idols by their young fans who flock to their classes.

And they have earnings to match - some have become millionaires and appear regularly on television shows.

"If you want to be a top tutor, it definitely helps if you are young and attractive. Students look at your appearance," said Kelly Mok, 26, a "tutor queen" at King's Glory, one of Hong Kong's largest tutorial establishments.

Her designer clothes and accessories are not just for the billboards; it's how she likes to dress outside classes. But she is also careful to add that she wouldn't be in such high demand if she could not deliver top grades in her subject, English.

Rock-star image

Richard Eng from Beacon College is often credited with being the first of Hong Kong's "star tutors". A former secondary school teacher, he says he got the idea after he featured in photographs advertising his sister, a performance artist.

"In school all the teachers look the same, there's no excitement," he said.

Richard Eng Richard Eng has brought a show business approach to the world of improving exam grades

His own image appears on special ring-binders and folders containing study tips, or pens which harbour a pull-out scroll with his picture and other gifts. Such items became so sought after that they propelled him to near-rock star status among young people.

The celebrity tutor phenomenon is a result of the huge growth in out-of-school tutoring in Asia.

It is fuelled by highly pressured examination systems and ambitious parents wanting their children to secure places at top universities and high-status secondary schools.

In societies where success is equated with good exam results, parental anxiety converts into a "steady stream of revenue" for tutoring establishments, according to a study by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

The tutoring industry, or "shadow education" as the ADB calls it, has become very widespread in Asia, fed by the growth in universities and the rising proportion of school leavers aiming for university.

Hong Kong University's professor Mark Bray, one of the authors of the ADB study, said a staggering 72% of final-year school students in Hong Kong now go to private tutors.

Richer families have always paid for individual tutoring, but the star tutors offer exam tips and revision notes to the less well-off, studying in groups of over 100.

'Getting an edge'

It's not just Hong Kong. Tutoring has "spread and intensified in Asia and become more commercialised," said professor Bray. In South Korea, 90% of primary school children attend such classes.

Kelly Mok poster Forget the elbow patches, tutor Kelly Mok teaches English with style

In South Korea, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, tutorial schools use star tutors to attract even more students. "They have found a way to appeal to young people and pull them in. They create a buzz," he said.

"We had this phenomenon of star tutors in Kota as well," said Pramod Maheshwari, chief executive of Career Point Coaching School in Kota, Rajasthan, India, a city of residential tutorial colleges which attract students from all over the country.

"It can give you an edge." But ultimately, he says, expansion of tutoring is driven not by personalities but by "the inefficiency of the school system".

"Across India, students' education level is not up to the mark, and millions are preparing for competitive college examinations. It is a huge market," said Mr Maheshwari.

In China, where private tutorial schools were unknown until the economy opened up in the 1990s, New Oriental Education and Technology has grown to become one of the largest tutoring schools in Asia with around 2.4 million students this year.

It boasts 17,600 teachers in 49 cities and an online network of over 7.8 million users.

Listed on the New York stock exchange since 2006, its founder Michael Yu (also known as Yu Minhong), became a multi-millionaire on the back of his blend of rote learning exercises, stand-up comedy and motivational speeches.

A man from a humble background, who had become an English teacher at Peking University, Mr Yu used the Hong Kong model of employing star tutors to prepare students for tests for universities abroad.

Extensive tutoring is sometimes seen as contributing to East Asian countries' high performance in international school comparisons, particularly in mathematics.

But professor Bray points out that the high performers in the international Pisa tests (Programme for International Student Assessment) also include countries that do not use much tutoring, such as in Scandinavia.

Tutor ban

There have also been attempts to reduce the impact of tuition.

In the 1980s, the South Korean government issued a blanket prohibition on such private tutoring.

Start Quote

Panic comes from the exams themselves. If there was no examination in Hong Kong, no matter what I say or look like, they would not come to me”

End Quote Richard Eng 'Tutor king'

It proved to be unenforceable, but it reflected worries that tuition can put too much pressure on pupils, with teachers complaining that pupils were falling asleep in class after long nights of tutoring.

In 2009, the South Korean government adopted measures to limit the number of hours students spent in "hagwons" or tutorial centres in a bid to reduce childhood stress and increase the level of creative thinking.

But the impact has been limited, pushing many tutorial classes online.

The government has since realised that the only way to change is to alter the exam culture, reducing the number of university entrance exams and encouraging universities to consider applicants on more than just exam scores.

A Singaporean study showed that while tutoring can have a positive influence on the subject being tutored, time taken away from other subjects may lead to a decline in overall academic performance.

The ADB report says in all parts of Asia, families are spending a considerable amount of the household income on tutoring. It may contribute to improved achievement for individual students, but it can exacerbate social inequalities.

Exam panic

Although there is some evidence of a cultural propensity to pay for tutoring - cities such as Vancouver in Canada and Sydney in Australia with large Chinese communities have a lot of tutoring - this is not the only factor.

"What happens in tutoring depends on what the schools and universities ask for. The parents will respond to whatever they think will get them in," said professor Bray.

Kelly Mok bus advert Kelly Mok looks down from a Hong Kong bus

Hong Kong recently shifted from a system similar to GCSEs and A-levels used in the UK to a single examination taken at age 17, leading to an explosion in tutoring. "There is greater pressure on students because there is only one examination that determines whether you get into university," said Kelly Mok.

"With so many tutors in Hong Kong, students don't know who to choose so they go for the 'tutor kings' and 'tutor queens'," she said.

Some students just attend the lectures and watch video recordings of lectures while others purchase add-ons such as personalised interaction with the star tutor or tutor's aide via Facebook or email.

But as more students enrol, it can become increasingly difficult to keep up with examination tips learned by classmates. "Students who would not otherwise have had tutoring may now do so in order not to be at a competitive disadvantage," says professor Bray.

But Richard Eng denies that tutors are sowing panic. "Panic comes from the exams themselves. If there was no examination in Hong Kong, no matter what I say or look like, they would not come to me."

Does tutoring put too much pressure on pupils? Does it give some students an unfair advantage? Or is it offering an extra way of improving standards in schools?

Walk into most HK classrooms and you'll see kids slumped over their desks asleep. They're exhausted from the day before, when they had to go to one of these tutorial courses and then had to do their real school homework until the early hours of the morning. This means they don't learn anything new at school. When parents eventually realise this, what do they do? Pay for a new tutorial course, of course!

Mike, Hong Kong

That depends! But I would agree that using all-or-nothing entrance examinations is a very bad idea and will inevitably lead to a tutoring explosion. This coupled with a narrow focus on a couple of disciplines such as engineering and medicine exacerbate the problem as anybody from India will tell you. Quality higher education and good job opportunities in many different fields for all regardless of social background are a must. Europe however is blindly following the Asians by looking at Pisa scores as the only criterion. Don't repeat our mistakes!

Vivek, Bangalore, India

Tutoring is a way of boosting confidence and self knowledge as much as ability and subject knowledge. They are often much greater hurdles to get past than lack of understanding.

Kate, Lancaster, UK

In Pakistan as well, especially in the urban areas like Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, there is a high trend of private tuitions and coachings. Even that there is a new phenomenon that pupils often taken two tuitions on the same subject to better grasp the idea and ascertain success in exams. Even my myself during my intermediate studies (12 and 13th year of formal education, just before university admission) used to visit five professors for all five different subjects.

Imran, Karachi, Pakistan

I don't understand this idea of an 'unfair advantage' when it comes to learning. Yes, people who are rich are more likely to succeed because they can 'buy' an education, but that doesn't mean that spending money on private lessons and tutors is going to help your grades. It all depends on the student and if someone isn't succeeding simply by going to classes and studying alone, then they might need a tutor. I don't think it's 'unfair,' it's just part of the learning process.

Becky, Seoul, South Korea

Tutors are a sad necessity in Asia, especially for students who want to study abroad. For all the high test scores that we see in international evaluations, many students in China are barely able to function outside of the confines of the Chinese standardized test education system.

Aaron, Chengdu, China

I'm currently an English teacher in Hong Kong. I cannot emphasise the permanence of these posters, they are everywhere! My 'favourite' is of a large group (perhaps 20 or so) 'teachers', both male and female, posing together. The men are dressed in black tie, and the women in long ball gowns. As I'm sure my tone has insinuated, I am not a fan of this. I believe it makes a mockery of education, ridding it of any dignity it has. It one word it is shallow. Pressure of Hong Kong students is immense, and therefore many parents, and students look for tutors to aid them in their studies. I feel advertisements like this simply do not help their decision making, as it makes students believe that the skill of a teacher is defined by the definition of the jawline, or the length of the legs. There are many good teachers in Hong Kong, and they are the backbone (as in any country) of the education system. I find advertisements like this (and the culture that is brought with it) undermines their efforts, and detracts attention away from the real champions of education, the everyday teacher.

Sam, Kowloon, Hong Kong

This phenomenon of excessive tutoring is also becoming increasingly common with primary school students. Students as young as grade 1 are receiving extra tutoring in Maths, Science, Art, English and Chinese. If a student's grade is less than 90% then quite often they'll be sent off to a tutoring school for extra classes in an attempt to up their grades. Parents seem to panic at the slightest drop in grades below this magical 90%. The idea that you can't be good at everything is completely alien here... . It's resulting in tired, stressed pupils who are lacking the experiences of personal interaction with others that would be gained through play and creativity which is going to lead to big societal problems

Nathan, Luzhou, China

This is a good piece of news! I would rather have kids flock after celebrity tutors than Justin Bieber and Paris Hilton. Hopefully, this phenomenon will come to the West and teaching will become a glamorous profession again. This may be the last hope for our society. A place where teenagers are only interested in whatever they call fun and sending 1000 text messages a day will not produce people that will meet the demands of the future!

Jamie, Toronto, Canada

It's 'sexing' up teaching. A money making swindle, of course, but like everything with form and no function, it is popular to those who think a hair cut is important. Don't forget, we are talking about a place where the young people will wait hours in a queue for a carrier bag with a designer's name on it!!! Go figure.

Dave, Hong Kong

More on This Story

More Business stories

RSS

Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • SpiderWeb of wonder

    BBC Earth takes a unique journey inside the body of a giant tarantula

Programmes

  • Cinema audienceClick Watch

    Brighter 3D films - the new laser-based system promising to deliver crisper, clearer movies

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.