If you are a Korean drama fanatic, you’ve probably heard of the drama ‘Sky Castle’. In the drama, wealthy housewives use various schemes and ideas to get their children into prestigious universities. Though undoubtedly dramatised, it presents a unique take on the concept of class, prestige, shame, tradition, and survival in modern Asian society.
In many parts of East Asia, getting good grades is often viewed as the most traditional and respected path to success. For example, local high school students in Hong Kong take the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) examination. Asian national exams such as this are highly competitive. They determine entry into tertiary institutions like universities.
The competition is intensified by the lack of places in universities for eligible students. For example, in 2016, 28,418 students met the minimum university entry requirements but 13,000 of them were not offered a place at a government-funded university due to place shortages. For those wealthy enough, studying abroad became the alternative. However, many are unable to afford the extra expenses and are thus left with little to no options.
This has caused the rise of cram schools in much of East Asia. According to a 2012 survey by the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, about 76% of surveyed Primary Five to Form Six pupils said they went to tutoring classes, and 63% were receiving additional tutoring. About 56% of those who were receiving tutoring spent at least HK$1,000 a month.
This phenomenon is also seen in Southeast Asia. In Singapore, the tuition industry grew from $650 million in 2008 to $820 million in 2013, and was worth over $1.4 billion in 2019. For context, the population of Singapore is around 5.8 million and there are about 6 hundred thousand Singaporeans aged 5-19 as of 2019.
This culture of fierce academic competition bleeds into individual families’ expectations and behaviours. Families naturally want their children to do well. As a result, they send their kids to institutions like tuition centres and cram schools. Over time, the demand for such optional academic institutions rises. Going and attending these schools become part of the norm, and such schools are slowly seen as compulsory or essential instead of merely optional. This poses problems for those who are unable to attend or afford these services. They will inevitably fall behind as they are given less exposure to the same content and less attention by such educators.
Over the years, this inequality in access to education has in turn resulted in income inequality. In June 2017, Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient (a measure of income inequality) stood at 0.539, the highest in 45 years, with a zero symbolising equality. Similarly, Singapore had a Gini coefficient of 0.4579 and the USA’s was 0.411. Those with higher income can afford to obtain more resources for their children, who will consequently be highly educated and better paid. This perpetuates the vicious cycle of poverty over generations, as privileged children will become even more privileged. With enough wealth, people can even avoid these tough education systems. For example, Hong Kong’s wealthiest often send their kids to international schools within Hong Kong. Their children can avoid taking the HKDSE, and instead participate in IB or equivalent courses which grants easier admission into universities overseas.
Such emphasis on academics has also spawned a host of mental issues in students. Hong Kong’s Child Fatality Review has listed difficulty with schoolwork as one of the key reasons for teen suicide. In Singapore, suicide is the leading cause of death for 10-29 year olds. Similarly, in 2016/2017, Japan reported its highest youth suicide rate in 30 years. Officials also revealed that there was a spike on September 1st, which was the beginning of the new academic year.
Getting help for such mental issues is also tough as heavy stigma exists in much of Asia around mental health. This can prevent accurate information and knowledge from reaching the vulnerable and leave misinformation uncorrected. Some people wrongly view their own mental health conditions as something taboo or shameful, and consequently avoid treatment through therapy or alternative help. Fear and isolation of themselves can also cause their condition to deteriorate unpredictably. This makes academic stress a pressing issue in Asia.
Though some students genuinely need the extra help offered in tuition centres, the original intention behind such organisations has become marred. Attending tutoring has become the norm instead of the exception. The teachers are often focused on profit instead of helping their students. The benefits from such services are also felt unequally throughout society, with those needing help the most going unseen. Lastly, it feeds into a system that cultivates unnecessary stress and competition between students.
However, the complicated factors that created such a booming tuition industry make its dissolution incredibly tricky. The truth is, nobody wants to be implicated or left behind. This focus on conventional success (i.e, academics, universities) is a clear sign of the competitive nature of Asian culture. If nothing changes, the high-pressure academic system and its adjacent tuition industry will only worsen.
Though abolition of the system is highly implausible, we can take steps to refocus the goals of our youth and our generation. We can create avenues for youths to seek mental health support. We can facilitate discussions around mental health to reduce the stigma around it. We can also advocate for more equal access to education or a lesser emphasis on the idea of a set path of success. We should encourage innovation for youths to succeed outside traditional institutions like universities. Ultimately, all these ideas are just that, and cannot come into fruition without action.
The most important thing is for those who are privileged to not grow content with the status quo. The competitive culture in work and school spares no one and should be addressed as soon as possible.