[Viewpoint] The futility of the crackdown

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[Viewpoint] The futility of the crackdown

In July 1980, the newly launched military regime announced an ambitious policy aimed at calming the public and removing a sense of social disparity. The measure? Banning private tutoring. The government warned that it would publish a list of parents and tutors who violated the ban and they would face criminal punishment.

Was the policy a success? Sure, some people were punished and their names were revealed, but private tutoring did not disappear. Instead, a black market was created and fees went up.

At the time, secret private tutoring was a major income source for many university students. Some young tutors moved into their students’ houses or taught groups of youngsters to finance their tuitions and living expenses.

Although university students fiercely opposed the new military regime, they welcomed the private tutoring ban, not because they agreed with the policy, but because they found themselves in a position of economic strength, able to charge higher fees than before the crackdown.

Of course, the trend was established because it was impossible to stamp out all secret private tutoring. The basic law of supply and demand could not be revoked, and despite the determination of the military regime, the private tutoring market functioned smoothly, despite the threats of punishments.

During the Roh Moo-hyun administration, Yoo In-jong launched a massive crackdown on hagwon, or private tutoring institutes, in November 2003 when he headed the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education. Yoo employed more than 3,000 law enforcement authorities for this task.

The concentration of demand for private tutoring around the neighborhood of Daechi-dong was believed to be a main reason behind the skyrocketing real estate prices in southern Seoul. The administration duly launched a campaign against hagwon, the perpetrator, it believed, of the fast expanding private education market.

And yet, only a single case of high-priced private tutoring was detected, while most of other cases were minor administrative violations.

The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, however, proudly announced that the one-month crackdown had rooted out private tutoring in the hagwon of southern Seoul after 10 p.m.

Nighttime tutoring resumed shortly after the crackdown, and at night, the hagwon were brightly lit.

The campaign against hagwon has now returned as part of the Lee Myung-bak administration’s middle-of-the-road, people-friendly policy, aimed at reducing private education costs for households.

The government said its crackdown should not be compared to those of the past, but the concept of controlling the private education market with regulations appears to be no different than past efforts.

The only new part of the policy appears to be providing a reward for people reporting violations.

But the government would do better to leave private education alone and quit thinking that this latest policy will make a difference. Some people may want to deny that the principle of supply and demand is functioning in the sacred education market. But the truth is market principles work openly and candidly in Korea’s private education industry.

The principle is that there is a supply where the demand is, and that when the demand grows and the supply goes down, the price goes up.

Any policy that denies the principle is destined to fail.

The crackdown is aimed at lowering the supply, but when the supply is artificially cut and the demand stays the same, we can expect to see two possible outcomes.

In most cases, fees go up to make up for a loss of profits if late-night classes are stopped. Parents are more than willing to pay higher fees to secure the hard-to-get tutoring spots for their children because the stakes are so high: the education, and the future careers, of their offspring.

If a tuition hike is impossible, hagwon will likely increase the number of students for each class or change the class period in violation of the law. The result? A black market of private tutors is likely to appear. And then, in order to stop such violations, the crackdown will become stronger and more intense.

There is, however, a limit to the government’s ability to put an end to private tutoring, and there appears to be no limit to what Korean parents will do to provide their kids with an education.

The end result has already been demonstrated by the past administrations’ failed attempts to control the private education market.

The only way to lower the private education burden of each household will be heightening the competitiveness of public education. The logic is simple.

When public schools provide cheaper, better education service than the private education industry, who will want to send their children to expensive hagwon late at night?

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jong-soo
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