Asia’s parents suffering 'education fever'

Parents seeing off children taking gaokao exam, in Anhui province Not sports stars, but Chinese parents seeing off their children to take exams

Zhang Yang, a bright 18-year old from a rural town in Anhui province in China was accepted to study at a prestigious traditional medicine college in Hefei. But the news was too much for his father Zhang Jiasheng.

Zhang's father was partly paralysed after he suffered a stroke two years ago and could no longer work. He feared the family, already in debt to pay for medicines, would not be able to afford his son's tuition fees.

As his son headed home to celebrate his success, Zhang Jiasheng killed himself by swallowing pesticide.

Zhang's case is an extreme. But East Asian families are spending more and more of their money on securing their children the best possible education.

In richer Asian countries such as South Korea and emerging countries like China, "education fever" is forcing families to make choices, sometimes dramatic ones, to afford the bills.

There are families selling their apartments to raise the funds to send their children to study overseas.

'Extreme spending'

Andrew Kipnis, an anthropologist at Australian National University and author of a recent book on the intense desire for education in China, says the amount spent on education is "becoming extreme".

Parents of university students sleep in a gymnasium in Huazhong Normal University Parents of students starting at Huazhong Normal University sleep in the gym

It is not just middle-class families. Workers also want their children to do better than themselves and see education as the only means of ensuring social mobility. Some go deep into debt.

"Families are spending less on other things. There are many cases of rural parents not buying healthcare that their doctors urge on them... Part of the reason is that they would rather spend the money on their children's education," said Mr Kipnis.

"Parents may be forced to put off building a new house, which they might have been able to do otherwise," said Mr Kipnis who did the bulk of his research in Zouping district in Shandong province, among both middle-class and rural households.

"It can be very intense. They often borrow from relatives. Of course some people have difficulty paying it back," said Mr Kipnis.

A Euromonitor survey found that per capita annual disposable income in China rose by 63.3% in the five years to 2012, yet consumer expenditure on education rose by almost 94%.

Tiger grandparents

It's not just the parents' incomes. Educating a child has become an extended-family project. "It goes beyond tiger mothers, it also includes tiger grandmothers and grandfathers," said Todd Maurer, an expert on education in Asia and partner at the consultancy firm, Sinica Advisors.

There is evidence of high levels of education spending in China, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Spending is also increasing in India and Indonesia.

South Korean smartphone addiction South Korean parents bring their children to a smartphone addiction clinic

In South Korea, where the government believes "education obsession" is damaging society, family expenditure on education has helped push household debt to record levels.

According to the LG Economic Research Institute, 28% of South Korean households cannot afford monthly loan repayments, and are hard pressed to live off their incomes.

A huge proportion of that income - 70% of Korean household expenditure, according to estimates by the Samsung Economic Research Institute in Seoul, goes toward private education, to get an educational edge over other families.

Families cut back on other household spending "across the board," said Michael Seth, professor of Korean history at James Madison University in the US and author of a book on South Korea's education zeal. "There is less money to spend on other things like housing, retirement, or vacations."

"Every developing country in Asia, specially China, seems to have a similar pattern," said Prof Seth.

A highly competitive examination system and rising aspirations are often blamed.

"The Korean education system puts enormous pressure on children," said Prof Seth." The only way to opt out of the system is not to have children. It is so expensive to educate a child that it is undoubtedly a factor in South Korea's very low birth rate," he said.

Cram schools

The education obsession is so all consuming that the South Korean government has unsuccessfully tried to curb it, concerned about family spending on extra-curricular lessons and cram schools for ferociously competitive exams.

While not yet at South Korean levels, China's education fever also puts pressure on family spending. A recent survey by market research company Mintel, found that nine out of 10 children from middle class families in China attended fee-charging after-school activities.

Monitoring radio signals to catch exam cheats Monitoring radio signals to catch hi-tech exam cheats in Shandong province

Parents believe these activities will help their children when it comes to university entry.

Children are being tutored for longer, starting younger. Where before it was for a year or two before the university entrance exam, now it can start in middle school or even primary.

Matthew Crabbe, Asia research director at Mintel, says that people in China are using the savings that might have been put aside for healthcare.

"But because the cost of education has risen and the competition for places at good universities have become so much more intense, they are investing more of their savings to make sure the child can get the grades they would need to get in."

Massive burden

It does not stop there. Nearly 87% of Chinese parents said they were willing to fund study abroad.

In the past an overseas education was confined to the most privileged. Now many more want foreign degrees to give them a shortcut to success.

According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a third of Chinese students studying abroad in 2010 were from working-class families.

Crossing flooded land to get pupils to exam, June 2013 A fire brigade's personnel carrier is used to make sure a flood does not prevent pupils getting to an exam in Ergun, northern China

This is a massive financial burden and parents may not realise the true costs.

According to Zhang Jianbai who runs a private school in Yunnan province, parents in small provincial cities often sell their apartments to fund their children's study overseas.

"Parents decide very early on that their children are going to go abroad and that requires quite a bit of money because [the preparation] cannot be acquired through the public education system," said Mr Maurer.

It can include intensive English lessons, study tours to the US and significant payments for student recruitment agents.

Last year an estimated 40,000 Chinese students travelled to Hong Kong to take the US college admissions exam, the Scholastic Assessment Test (SATS), which is not offered in mainland China.

Chinese education company, New Oriental Education, organises SAT trips to Hong Kong for $1,000 (£627) on average, and parents spend up to $8,000 (£5,020) on tutoring.

Gambling on results

Once confined to affluent Beijing and Shanghai, it is an expanding market. The company expects its revenue to grow by over 40% in China's second and third tier cities.

Fudan University, Shanghai Fudan University, Shanghai: Seven million Chinese youngsters graduated this year

"Parents are surrendering their last resources to wager them on a child's future by sending them abroad," said Lao Kaisheng, an education policy researcher at Capital Normal University in Beijing.

It means that when young people graduate there is great pressure on them to start earning.

This is particularly an issue as record numbers of students graduate, seven million this year, and an overseas degree no longer has the status it had in the past. Many graduates languish in non-graduate jobs.

But it is not easy to dampen education fever. In South Korea as in other East Asian countries, "it is deeply embedded in the culture. It's also based on reality that there is no alternative pathway to success or a good career other than a prestige degree, this was true 50 years ago, and it's just as true today".

"As long as that's the case it's actually rational for parents to spend so much and put so much pressure on their children," said Prof Seth.

How much is 'education fever' a problem? Is it putting too much pressure on children and parents? Or should we see it as a sign of how much Asian families want their children to succeed?

It's a dilemma on multi levels -- cultural, social, financial and evolution even. Everyone wants that piece of good pie and tries for it. I'm from a middle class family from Rangoon, Burma. And since as long as I could remember my family had reminded me day and night that my future lies in good education (namely education from either the US or UK). And day and night I was to study. After regular school is private cram classes. No time for sports, social outings or extracurricular activities. And my progress in this world was solely judged on the letters on my report card. And it better be an A, least an A-. True, families see education as the only escape from the cycle of their social-classes. Sacrificed are the times to develop physical strength, friendships and soul-searching. And the dilemma is if you're unable to up at least a notch higher on the social ladder than your parents' level you're looked down by the society, and because the cultural value of success has been forced into you, you feel ashamed -- self-loathing. And you probably won't marry into someone of higher social class. Thus, doomed to be stuck in the middle-class loop cycle. But you study every second, forego social activities and such, and once you have graduated from a US college, you pretty much end up with the same amount of self-loath for missing out on huge chunks of carefree childhood too.

Thaung Myint, Texas, US

Living as an Asian is a dictated life. Parent treat their children like an insurance policy / some form of investment; 25 years of premium and 80 years of pay-outs, parents have no moral when it comes to their child's personal developments, education success- new age slave.

Derick, Singapore

How can we improve our life quality without good education? No way. Specially for less-money families.

Tonglei, Shenzhen, China

Chinese and Asian parents go to extreme length to provide education for their children. What they did not realise is their sacrifices have landed the children with immense pressure. They (the children) need to fare well in examinations, graduate and earn sky high salaries, and take care of their parents. This would inevitably ingrained the "I want money! I must be rich regardless of what I do" mentality which eventually leads to unscrupulous and unethical behaviours.

Merlin, Malaysia

Too much pressure on our children. Even a kindergarten child has to learn English as not to a loser at the beginning of life. Such idea is deeply rooted in parents' heart in China

Chen Liang, Yangzhou

Growing up in a small town in China's Yunnan province, I have been touched by the way my working class parents suffered their happiness in order to provide me better education. But I was still shocked when I saw the story of Zhang Yang and his father. I do not think Chinese people's obsession with education is going to waken in the near future. For working class families, education is the only way to get social mobility and for privileged families, super successful parents expect nothing less from their offspring.

Jojo, Chengdu, China

Coming from a Korean background. I think that the pressure placed on father, mother, and child is destructive. I always viewed education as a tool and not a burden; a gift if you will. But as of now, education is becoming more forced and predetermined without thinking about what is best for the family entity. As this story suggests, the dead father should not have endured that pain and suffering. I feel very sorry for that culture, and for the families that feel forced to make or break themselves. It is a deeply rooted problem, but it isn't really a bad problem either, since success is and has always been something south east asian families have valued. The real problem is how we've globally defined the term, survival of the fittest. This darwinistic theology is indicative of negative behavior in most countries.

Deborah, Lakewood, US

Many people in China hold the opinion that college entrance examination is nearly the only fair way for the next generation. As you may know there are a lot of silver-spoon kids or privileges in China. When it comes to this aspect, I totally agree with that it is rational for Chinese parents to be a little strict. But it's different from family to family, for exam!

Viola, Beijing

I am a British citizen living in Shenzhen. My fiancee studied at Glasgow university and she is Chinese. I have experienced this first hand in China with pushy parents that children don't develop any social skills. Chinese children are like robots, they can study hard and some may have masters degrees from all over the world but can't work in a job due to their inability to communicate with other people. Moreover, for men especially, to get married you must have a car, house, good job that's well paid and a degree. It runs deeper that just an education. Corruption is rife here and the wealthy will always come out better due to the ability to bribe....for more.

Craig, Shenzhen

The problem with 'education fever' is that people forget what education is. Most East Asian countries equate academic qualifications to levels of intellect. People with higher qualifications are seen as intelligent individuals. These individuals are more sought after and often offered high paying jobs. Here, high salary is an indicator of success. To put it simply, education is a key expedient to success, whereby success (in terms of wealth) is the end goal. Education is about learning so that you are empowered to do more. Education is about cultivating minds so that individuals are able to think critically and solve problems creatively. The problem with viewing education as an essential expedient to success rather than the above is that it is not sustainable. There is too much pressure and way too costly for all the wrong reasons. Suicide rates due to pressure among adults and teens are high in East Asia. And because the cost of raising a child is high, couples are reconsidering having children. Already there is a global aging population and an even more problematic aging population in East Asian countries (Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore). These are real social problems that have severe long term impact on the economy. There is also a problem of a saturated market of degree-holder graduates. I think the real problem is that we are producing graduates just for the sake of a good job and a good life, rather than what is really needed for the society, for the economy, and for a quality life.

Alice, Singapore

I'm an English teacher at an extra curricular training school in Zhejiang China and I can assure you that the extreme attitude towards education is well beyond what we are used to in the West. For example parents here are determined to have kids as young as 3 coming to extra English lessons, piano, violin and much more. Failure is not an option here, parents will do whatever is necessary. It is therefore a huge boom industry and worth getting involved in!

James, Zhejiang province

I believe education fever is a problem, because it takes away from children and youngsters the possibility to think independently and become mature. I was shocked to hear a Chinese friend she was basically fed, washed and dressed up by her parents till the age of 18, so that she could just concentrate on studying. She was forbidden to give any help at home. No wonder most of the teachers I met in China told me that teaching to university Chinese students is like teaching high-school or even middle-school teenagers. On the other side, I believe the opportunity to go overseas for a Chinese or Asian student can have a good impact on both his/her life and career. Some friends, recalling this experience, told me they were at first shocked but after all could integrate with life in a western country. But this is an economical burden that most of the families cannot bear for the moment.

Gaia, Shanghai

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