In Hong Kong, star tutors earn $1.5 million salaries

In the Hong Kong cut-throat world of Chinese education, star tutors drive Ferraris and earn $1.5-million salaries.

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    In Hong Kong, star tutors can earn salaries of up to $1.5-million.
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Their confident faces smile out from billboards across the city. Their promotional grins are plastered across double-decker buses, subway light boxes, even on TV.

These are Hong Kong's "star tutors," accorded near-celebrity status for their ability to make learning fun and help students pass exams in everything from English to chemistry.

Tutoring is common in Asia, where intense emphasis on grades and exams means parents are willing to shell out. More than half of Hong Kong's youths get assistance outside school, a recent survey found.

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The industry here is especially competitive and commercialized as tutors mimic the city's showbiz industry to attract students and grab a share of the $460 million market.

"Those images of fame and stardom have been sustained and re-invented in different forms, resulting in tutors now packaging themselves as the superstars of the education sector in order to appeal to students," says Gerald Postliglione, a professor at the University of Hong Kong.

Star tutors spare no costs on publicity. Even tutors who belong to one of the four major chains here must self-promote. But successful tutors can command hundreds of students.

Those at the very top see their lives splashed across the pages of the city's gossip magazines, revealing how many luxury cars they drive or properties they own. Some reports put their salaries as high as $1.5 million a year. One English tutor, Richard Eng, is famous for his love of Ferraris.

Critics worry that the emphasis on good looks and brand names sends youths the wrong message, but some tutors say the gimmicks are indispensable – and that the results are real. "The marketing is only for attracting students – we still need to deliver to keep the students coming back," says Antonia Cheng, an English tutor at Modern Education, a major chain.

Ms. Cheng says she tries to make English fun, using interactive methods and discussing contemporary issues. Cheng gives out her phone number; many tutors also are on Facebook.

"Teachers communicate in a way we understand, unlike at school, which we find really boring," says Casper Chan, a high-schooler.

Tutors have capitalized on changes roiling the educational system since 1997, when Hong Kong reverted to China. The government introduced "mother-tongue teaching" to popularize Cantonese in the classroom, but that weakened English proficiency and was scrapped. It also recently switched to a more US-style "3-3-4" system for junior high, high school, and college. This year it introduced liberal studies in high school, to improve critical thinking skills.

"There's been a lot of confusion ... in the last few years. Tutor centers have to be result-oriented," says Trino Chan, who recently opened his own center. "When the system doesn't deliver what parents expect, they are willing to pay for tutors. This is why there will always be money to be made in tutoring in Hong Kong."

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