Education (Part 2) : Perpetuating inequality
Updated: Apr 26, 2020
Education is meant to broaden the minds of young people, right? No. Education is a very competitive nasty business. In Hong Kong (HK) it's especially hard to move up in the world without money, the right job, the right connections, the necessary academic qualifications. Actually, it's probably like this in many countries. But in HK parents push their kids that much harder to achieve academically so they can get into the best schools and the university courses of their (or their own) dream.
For years, the privately owned tutoring schools have been propagating the idea that extra cramming and exam help from their establishments is essential for any student to have a competitive edge, or to overcome their difficulties with tough subjects and a rigorous examination-based education system. Some tutors are in great demand and much more handsomely paid than regular school teachers.
Both the kids and the parents know that this educational set-up is neither fair nor healthy. Everything is positioned in such a way that the privileged have the advantage. It really is more sinister that that, as Robert Badal explains in the opinion piece below, first published in South China Morning Post April 25, 2020.
With the Covid-19 pandemic HK entered a phase of social distancing legislated by the government, and as weeks go by those tutoring schools have been losing money hand over fist. Tutors have long been dismissed, but costly rents still have to be paid for the school premises. Owners of the tutoring schools, feeling the financial squeeze have been pleading for some of the economic stimulus money the HK government has been doling out to help struggling business stay afloat and stimulate the economy as it heads deeper into a recession.
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Instead of bailing out Hong Kong’s greedy tuition centres, spend more on improving education
Los Angeles native Robert Badal is an author and teacher and former corporate consultant and CEO speechwriter. He has taught in the US, Japan, Korea, and China, published research, and consulted for Hong Kong Baptist University. His company is Ba Lao Shi Perfect English.
Covid-19 is wreaking havoc on many businesses in Hong Kong, notably the once-lucrative tuition centres. To help out owners and their landlords, the government is giving out HK$40,000 (US$5,160) each to the roughly 500 former gold mines.
Parents in Hong Kong traditionally spend more on their children's education than almost anywhere else in the world, with much of it flowing into tuition centres. Now, with that river of cash cut off by social distancing, tuition centre owners are getting a nice government handout and begging for more. But, instead of giving more to these businesses, let us look at the whole picture.
Tuition centres are run for profit by businesspeople, not educators. Professional educators are the enemy of the profiteer owners because they cost money. Tutorial centres profit from economies of scale, where customers pay for mass-produced merchandise – in this case, classes.
The “manufacturers” are the teachers, and it is in the tuition centres’ interest to employ the cheapest teachers possible. Of course, this usually means they are unqualified. This is especially true in Hong Kong because of the exorbitant rents.
The exceptions are usually found in centres that cater to the upper classes. They can afford to pay more and employ better teachers because they can charge more. But this is not the case for most tuition centres, and not even for some of the pricier ones, where the cheaper programmes are concerned. They trumpet the qualifications of their “consultants and coordinators” for the upper echelon programmes but waltz around the subject of teacher qualifications for the low-end programmes for the masses, usually using the catch-all “experienced” and/or “qualified”. Questioning the cultural values that engender tuition centres is tricky, but observing that the businesses are, at best, of questionable benefit to society, is not. If the boss of a tuition school chain, the 22-year-old scion of a billionaire Hong Kong property development family, can buy a mansion for nearly HK$1 billion while, by the Education Bureau’s own admission on its website, the average Hong Kong public secondary school student graduates with a vocabulary of 3,000 English words (less than a five-year-old American child), it is clear we have a dysfunctional education system. What is the lament about the plight of tuition centres really about? Claiming that they perform some noble educational service to the community is laughable. Besides, no one seems really upset by the grotesque wealth-based educational inequality that exists. I do not see any billionaires rushing to help the children of lower-income families. The real concern seems to be for commercial property owners losing a lucrative source of rent. Well, boohoo for them. They were fine with bleeding tenants with cavalier rent increases in better times. Every Hongkonger has a friend who lost his businesses because of sudden rent increases or has lost a business himself for the same reason. Long before Covid-19 and the protests, rent gouging was erasing Hong Kong’s character and replacing it with the same chain stores and slick corporate packaging everywhere. If there is a positive side to Covid-19, it could be that it questions our acceptance of property development as the city god: a very selfish, rapaciously hungry god. If the government wants to bail out tuition schools, be honest and admit the money is to help commercial property owners. Perhaps the announcements could include sad stories of property owners putting off buying new mansions or yachts because of reduced rental incomes.
If the government truly wants to help education in Hong Kong, that money would be better spent directly on the issues and challenges that affect the hundreds of thousands of public schoolchildren.
Let’s look at this crisis as an opportunity to do something for them – and let property owners live with lower rents. As a building owner coldly told the father of one of my students, who was being forced to close the little restaurant he had saved for years to open because of the sudden 30 per cent rent increase: “That’s business.”
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