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Why It Matters

Does tuition help or hinder?

Does tuition really help to pull up students' performance?

No study here answers this question definitively, and academics say many factors can affect a student's performance - from his teachers to his parents' educational levels. But there is an urgent need to study the tuition phenomenon, given its pervasiveness and the time and money spent on it.

The just-published Straits Times-Nexus Link survey of 500 households found a high prevalence of tuition here - seven in 10 families sent their children for extra classes after school. The median amount spent on tuition was $155 a month for pre-school, $205 for primary school and $260 for secondary school. The Household Expenditure Survey released last year said families spent a staggering $1.1 billion a year on tuition.

Like several correlational studies done here and overseas, the ST-Nexus Link survey also suggests that tuition does not lead to significant gains.

The survey found that only a third of parents said tuition helped to pull up their children's grades.

Likewise, the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study on 15-year-olds ranked Singapore first among 18 countries when it came to tuition. But the study found that those who had tuition did not do better in the Pisa test than those who did not.

Another study by economists Euston Quah and Roland Cheo published a decade ago even concluded that too much private tuition could hurt performance. The study found that among students of the same ability, those who spent more time on tuition fared worse than those who had fewer hours.

Then there are the opportunity costs. Tuition time can be better spent on sports and other activities that build skills such as leadership and teamwork, which may be more crucial for long-term success.

Is tuition a waste of time, effort and money? Does it hurt students instead? There is an urgent need to look into these issues.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2015, with the headline 'Does tuition help or hinder?'. Print Edition | Subscribe