Crackdown on tuition sector: Where the market ends

August 04, 2021 09:33
Photo: Reuters

Michael Sandel once penned a book, named “What Money Can’t Buy”. In it, he makes the argument that the introduction of money and the market into particular spheres would inevitably corrode the integrity of the field – whether it be in engendering inequality amongst those who utilise the goods and services in question, denaturing (through instrumentalisation and the logic of quantification) its inherent substance, or in propagating particular values that – pace Sandel – are to the detriment of a sound, civic sphere.

Whilst I fundamentally disagree with Sandel on questions concerning perfectionism and what constitutes the ideal, good life – as well as, of course, his views on communitarianism (which strike me as more circular in reasoning than King Arthur’s round table), there are certainly a few points on which we converge. One of them, of course, is the view that money could well be a corrupting force where it ought not take root, and ought not manifest. Indeed, a case in point here would be the after-school tutoring scene in China, where substantial inequalities have arisen over the tuition industry – on which the recent crackdown has been to much chagrin amongst shareholders.

The official explanation, or so it goes, is this: the after-school tutoring scene is expensive, difficult to access, and psychosocially burdensome. Yet increasingly, with its ascent, mainstream schools have witnessed increasing capital drain – both in forms of teaching staff and capital – to the ostensibly “supplementary sector”. Teachers have picked up “double shifts” at these schools, where they instruct and teach parts of the formal curricula in lieu of teaching them within mainstream schools – billing students hefty, exorbitant fees for what they are entitled to. Additionally, the education sector has further amplified the gap between the rich and poor – especially in city centers, where a high concentration of after-school tuition centers have severely compounded the woes of the struggling middle class, as well as enabled well-endowed (or relatively endowed) students to get ahead of their peers.

Inequality is not ad simplicter an absolute harm – there may be instances where inequality is useful, to spur and incentivise progress; to motivate re-distribution and re-allocation of resources in a manner that maximises efficiency, or, just, more generally, inequality could well be necessary in order for freedom to flourish. Yet when the education system is effectively transformed into one where students must “pay to play”, there is clearly something amiss here – not only is social mobility strangulated; there is also the arguably far more substantial problem – that students are not taught what they are supposed to learn and know through the mainstream, “no-tuition” route of education. Not only does this perversely undercut the efficacy of teaching and learning for those who cannot afford additional tuition, it also renders attempts at standardising the curriculum (which may or may not be of symbolic or normative importance) effectively a null, moot point. The upshot, therefore, is that the regulation is a necessary evil.

A few caveats here, of course. After-school tutoring must be differentiated from other forms of counselling services – it is by no means an intrinsic evil, and to demonise any and all forms of academic counselling and advice as necessarily detrimental would perhaps be over-hasty a judgment. The issue here lies not with the availability of supplementary aids that enable students to play catch-up, or, alternatively, to push themselves beyond the standard curriculum. As someone who has plenty of time for those who innovate and engage in targetted, high-quality extracurricular education courses and programmes, I would loathe to condemn – nor would I in fact intend to – those who have contributed substantially to the education scene by offering extension programmes to stretch, challenge, and probe voluntary students beyond their limits.

Nor is the issue, by the way, the presence of vocational and skills-oriented programmes – e.g. internships, on-job training, and supplementary work experience (paid) – that students can undertake to enrich their own horizons and perspectives. Most of these programmes are integral elements and pillars of nascent industries – the start-up sector, for one, hires a substantial volume of highly educated and qualified interns, and offers them invaluable contacts and networking opportunities.

The issue rests – squarely and fairly – with the monetisation of mainstream education: more specifically, the transfer of knowledge and taught curricula from formal education institutes, to after-school “tuition centers” that are threatening to thwart and disrupt the very education system in the country. Now on this point, I concur with the professed rationale for the crackdown – whether it be in terms of the inequality engendered, the blatant corruption of education at its core, or, indeed, the practical harms inflicted upon the state education system, as students resort to “mandatory top-ups” at these after-school centers, in lieu of learning at mainstream schools.

Where the market ends, however, it need not be the case that the state steps in. And even where the state steps in, it ought to do so with both finesse and sensitivity to the needs and concerns of the consumers and prime beneficiaries from the sector. It is time that we ditched this fixation over shareholder capitalism – and make the shift and pivot to stakeholder capitalism. Sensible, competent regulations that are neither overboard nor unhelpfully vague, would be integral in upholding the interests of core stakeholders of the economy.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review