Mark Bray: UNESCO Chair ceremony and Shadow Education

My academic adviser, Mark Bray, was awarded a UNESCO Chair professorship in Comparative Education last night. His focus will be shadow education, a term for private supplementary tutoring. Here’s a (free) book he and Chad Lykins just published for the Asia Development Bank on the topic.

Below is the text from a SCMP story on his research and the ceremony. I’m only providing it here because it’s behind a paywall.

Preliminary results of a survey of Hong Kong pupils show most have tutors, but a former education chief at the United Nations says this is not a recipe for success.

Mark Bray, who is now a professor of comparative education at the University of Hong Kong, surveyed 1,720 pupils in 16 schools this past academic year, and found that 54 per cent of Form Three pupils have tutors, and an alarming 72 per cent of Form Six students have tutors.

Bray said the pervasiveness of private tutoring creates social inequalities. “If you’re rich, you have a one-on-one tutor, and if you’re not so rich, you can go to King’s Glory and it won’t cost a lot.”

King’s Glory Education Centre is one of the many “cram schools” that have become lucrative businesses and provide exam tips. He said this system was churning out “robots” that excel in exams, but have scant time for non-academic activities.

Bray, who was director of Unesco’s International Institute for Educational Planning in Paris between 2006 and 2010, compared his results to those of other countries.

He found that the Hong Kong results were closest to South Korea – considered the country with the most competitive academic culture – where 72 per cent of middle school pupils have tutors, and 60 per cent of high school pupils have tutors. He also interviewed hundreds of pupils and teachers, and the study results will be released later this year.

The problem of private tutoring – or “shadow education” – is global, but Bray said the four places with the most pupils receiving tutoring were South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, though the number in mainland China is rapidly growing.

The numbers are far lower in Europe – where 8 per cent of British secondary school pupils and 33 per cent of French upper secondary pupils have tutors, but the problem was severe enough that the European Union commissioned Bray to write a report on the implications of private tutoring on its member countries.

“I would like our schools to be strong so [the pupils] don’t need to go [to tutors], but the reality is, they are going,” said Bray.

He said Hong Kong public schools, compared with other countries’, were considered well funded so the government should have no excuse for not raising standards.

Bray is one of 74 Unesco chair professors in the world who are charged with achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Bray’s role is pushing for equal and high-quality education for all children worldwide. There are now three Unesco chair professors in Hong Kong.

“We are in a competitive society and it is getting more competitive, and that is shaping our education system,” said Bray.

He urged parents not to neglect the personal development of their children. “Parents need to have an overview of the child’s development and realise there are other things in life.”

Another issue, he says, is that it is difficult to assess the quality of education in tutoring centres, as they are not regulated by the government. “While teachers have to be trained, you don’t have to be trained to be a tutor,” he said.

He urged the government to look to Finland, where pupils are just as successful as their Asian peers but without the help of tutoring. He said this was because schools cater to a diverse group of learners, low achievers can get remedial help, and parents and pupils trust their teachers.



  1. Jackie Chen said:

    Bray has a clear argument but it does not make sense in Asian cultural context. Do strong schools lessen the tendency of students’ motivation for seeking shadow education? Or is it a cultural phenomenon of Confucian-influenced societies, particularly in the context of intensifying competitive environment? I am shocked to see Bray – a comparativist – compares the case of Finland with Hong Kong, and urged the Hong Kong government to look to Finland.

    But given the weak methodology, we are not surprised for the wrong argument reached. Common researchers will normally ask these: Did he do any ethnographic study into the Hong Kong students and understand their subjectivities about going for cram schools? How were the mere 16 schools sampled and hence representative of the whole Hong Kong high school student population?

    Hope this study does not affect the prestige of UNESCO chair professorship.

    May 19, 2012
    • Trey said:

      Hi Jackie,

      Thanks for your comments. I’ll try to address each issue. I’d begin by saying this might be unintentional proof of how academic work doesn’t translate too well to press. The critiques you bring up would all seem mute were you to read any of the scholarly works Mark, his students, and colleagues have written.

      But to each point: Mark has lived in Hong Kong since the 1980s and speaks Cantonese. All of the students I know who study this under his supervision are Chinese, either HK locals or mainlanders. If there is a cultural critique to be found it is that the research is too firmly based and relevant to Chinese (or, as you say, Asian) cultural contexts. This is likely why the EU recently asked him to do a European-specific study, which is likely where the Finland example arises.

      You believe there is something inherently “Confucian” about the rise of shadow education in Asia. I’d zoom out an examine the term itself – “shadow” education. It’s shadowing a larger educational system. “Confucian” education is heavily exam centric and thus conducive to the use of tutors. The comparison with Finland is relevant in that Finland does not have an examine-obsessed culture and consequently has no or very little private tutoring. The education system is working the way it should in that teachers are able to cater to the individual needs of students.

      That said, you might be interested in the work of Zhang Wei who is currently studying the demand-side of shadow education amongst students in Chongqing. She’s probably in the best position to answer how much this is a cultural vs economic phenomenon. The answer is likely “both” – but I doubt shadow education would have much currency or relevancy without make-or-break exams like the gaokao.

      Finally, the UNESCO Chair was awarded not in spite of this shadow education work, but because of it. Mark is the leading scholar in this field and left his directorship at UNESCO’s International Institute of Educational Planning precisely to create this sort of research network.

      May 19, 2012
  2. Jackie Chen said:

    Many thanks Trey for your prompt reply!

    Do you agree that when Hong Kong schools become ‘stronger’, students find it less necessary to go for shadow education?

    Can strong schools be made possible without ‘de-Confucianize’ South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong schooling systems (and therefore make them less exam-oriented)?

    May 19, 2012
  3. Seana said:

    My question is, are they getting tutors in order to compete for limited spots in college? If that’s the case, there’s no way improving the schools will help– the students (and their parents) will still be looking for ways to outperform the competition. The Finnish have managed to avoid the standardized test culture somehow. I wonder how college admission works over there?

    May 19, 2012
    • Jackie Chen said:

      @Seana, absolutely! Your comments make much sense! That’s all about the issue of being outperforming in ever-intensifying competitions – not simply for better schools, but better jobs after graduation. Although I have read Trey’s comments carefully, I (still) think that even schools in South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong become stronger – and is as strong as the ‘Finland’s model’, students and parents still pursue cram schools, and particularly seek ‘stronger’ shadow education.

      I have great doubt whether educators and school administrators can change a culture which is deeply-rooted through centuries of history. The Finnish have managed to avoid the standardized test culture somehow. Who can uproot the Korean, Taiwanese and Hong Kong cultures and make them look upon the Finnish – a superior one?

      Let’s hope wrong arguments by education researchers may not lead to wrong education policies, in ‘peripheral’ Asia.

      May 23, 2012
  4. Paco said:

    In the case of HK, no, the competition does not arise out of scarcity of college spots. Matriculation rates into college from high school are very high. To answer Jackie’s question — I don’t think stronger schools will mitigate this trend. If you look at the “top tier” schools in HK, tutoring is just as prevalent as public schools in poorer communities. As the author points out, those families who can afford it go for private tutors while there are cram-classes of several dozen students (watching *videotaped* tutors, mind you!) for the more budget constrained.

    In short, it is a cultural phenomenon that arose in the 80s when an increasingly affluent society was able to afford these “shadow education” services and has now given rise to a full-fledged, highly lucrative industry with billionaire tutors with celebrity status, whose photos are annoyingly plastered over public buses.

    Bear in mind it’s also a vicious cycle. When many of your child’s classmates have tutors (hence presumably a slight advantage at exams), you’ll most likely follow suit. Classic game theory problem. It’s Nash — in the end, everyone gets tutors, learns nothing new and the system remains equally competitive.

    May 21, 2012

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