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[Intern Report] Hagwon close, but late-night education goes on

Aug 17,2009
Four drowsy-eyed teenagers scribble in notebooks filled with mathematics problems as they gather around a young female instructor at a table at a home in Bundang, southeast of Seoul.

A wall clock shows it’s past midnight. But the students, all freshmen at a Bundang High School, know the group’s private tutoring won’t be over until 1 a.m.

They are used to studying late.

Earlier, it was at a private institute with dozens of more students. Last month, their parents hired a private tutor for the four.

“I heard that it is because of the government policy to regulate private education,” said one of the students, only identified herself with surname Lee, explaining why she is not studying at hagwon, or cram school, anymore. “Nothing seems to have changed. We are still studying past midnight,” she said. She said her parents are paying 500,000 won ($403) for the private mathematics tutoring, 200,000 won more they had paid the hagwon.

On July 8th, the government announced that it would limit the hours of hagwon. Now, hagwon in Seoul need to shut down by 10 p.m. while those in other regions must close at midnight. The government is wagering that the regulation will reduce private education costs, a key contributor to mounting Korean household debt. Last year, Koreans spent 13.6 trillion won, nearly 0.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, on private education, government data shows.

According to experts and students, however, the new regulations, as with past policies aimed at curbing private education costs, are falling short of the mark. That’s not because the regulation is being ignored. Many hagwon across the country are dutifully closing after 10 p.m. The few that aren’t are being tracked down. The government said it will pay up to 2 million won as a reward to those who report hagwon bending the rules, creating a new job called hagparazzi (a word made combining hagwon and paparazzi).

According to the Education Ministry, there were as many as 150 daily hagparazzi reports of hagwon breaking the rules in the month since the regulation took effect. Some 132 million won has been rewarded to the hagparazzis, the ministry said.

“I used to study late at hagwon listening to lectures or self-studying,” said Jung Min-yeon, a high school student in Gangnam, southern Seoul. “Now, my hagwon provides neither courses nor buses late at night.”

The problem, however, does not end there. Industry watchers say many hagwon owners and parents are cleverly bending the spirit of the rules to continue providing private eduction to their children.

“I don’t think this new regulation is working,” said a high school student in Seoul, on condition of anonymity. He said he began seeing a private tutor last month.

An instructor, who wished to remain anonymous, and teaches both at hagwon and in a private tutoring course said some hagwon open new courses on weekends to substitute the classes cut during weekdays because of the regulation. “The actual amount of time that students spend in hagwon has not changed,” he said. “Some parents are calling me to get information about tutoring a group of students late at night, after 10 p.m.”

The instructor said the problem of the regulation is that it doesn’t solve the essential problem of private education. “Even if school teachers are extremely competent, private education will exist,” he said. “Standardized education cannot satisfy all individual student needs.”

Professor Kim Kyung-sung, at Seoul National University of Education, urged the government focus on strengthen public education. “It is questionable whether this regulation is efficient without the development of public education,” he said.


This article was written with the assistance of staff reporter Moon Gwang-lip.


By Lee Soo-yeon [enational@joongang.co.kr]



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