I’ve noticed how dinner party conversations can veer south very quickly upon the first utterance of an education-related topic. Someone could ask, “Did you see that article on [insert controversial educational reform]?” and polite company become very, well, impolite. What I find fascinating is the increasingly polarised debate surrounding the consequences of tuition. In Singapore, the word tuition is not just in reference to university fees but also extra classes for academic subjects. The “tuition industry”, as its been termed, is worth $1.1 billion dollars and can cater to children as young as 6-years-old. Once you get past the astronomical figure and shake off the image of a toddler taking on Advanced Calculus, we can begin to unfold what powers this lucrative industry.
As a former British colony, our history as an independent country spans a mere 51 years, during which we’ve graduated to a cosmopolitan first world country. Meritocracy was instrumental in improving our productivity and global standing, and people finally stopped mistaking us for a part of China. Fortunately, we’ve entered an age where our geographical location is no longer an issue, but something else is off-center and it’s not because we’re one degree north of the equator; the bedrock of society that’s served us for half a century is slowly crumbling.
Today, Singaporean society is characterized by extreme competitiveness and the relentless pursuit of excellence. The rat race is especially inescapable in the education system where desperation to give children an academic edge has translated into the creation of a “tuition culture”, where an average of 2.2% of household expenditure is committed to monthly tuition fees. And it’s not just because a couple of millionaires have extra cash to blow. A study in 2015 found that 7 in 10 parents send their children for supplementary lessons. This begs the question – what about the other 30%? If society is founded on rewarding merit with opportunity, what happens when one’s opportunity to attain merit is compromised? While the tuition industry has produced brilliant minds and bright scholars, it has created a society that unintentionally discriminates against the poor and renders the importance of merit impotent.
Maybe 18-year-olds have no business poking at a problem as multi-faceted and complex as this, but at the risk of sounding grandiose, we are in the best positions to do so. I’ve always been more inclined to Literature and English language, finding more safety in words than numbers. Thankfully, I was able to enlist the help of a mathematics tutor and she soon helped me make sense of . You see, I’m a part of the privileged 70% and I couldn’t be more cognizant of the elitism and gross disparity born out of this pernicious reality. I’ve seen friends brighter than me experience an unjust disadvantage simply because they lack the capital to achieve their full potential
The entire industry is powered by a result-oriented mentality, usually perpetuated by parents who want the best prospects for their child. This doesn’t just disadvantage the poor, but every child who experiences undue stress and anxiety from the perpetual endeavor for academic prowess. We desperately need a paradigm shift towards a lifestyle premised on holistic living etc etc. Furthermore Enticed by shorter hours and higher pay many capable, passionate school teachers are moving into private tuition and so its no surprise that teacher attrition is 3 per cent annually. This, I believe, has contributed to a self-perpetuating problem where students do not receive the most favorable education in schools and seek it externally (at exorbitant prices) from great teachers who have left schools to become tutors. The increased demand for tuition and higher pay compel more school teachers to make the switch and the cycle repeats.
Perhaps meritocracy isn’t the best ideal and a country as small and profit-driven as Singapore needs a little competition to maintain her edge in the world, but when the proliferation of private tuition is at the expense of our central tenets of “justice and equality”, I don’t think it’s our children that need supplementary lessons.