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SKorea leads exam-mad Asia in tutoring obsession

On this day every year, life in South Korea comes to a halt.

The country's high school students are taking their college entrance exam, which means the stock market and offices open later to ensure students don't get stuck in traffic, planes are grounded for about 40 minutes, the military stop conducting drills. This year, the central bank also delayed its interest rate decision for an hour.

It's all a reflection of South Korea's extreme focus on academic excellence; its private tutoring industry is worth about $20 billion a year.

The journey to scholastic excellence starts young. More than 80 percent of elementary students received private tutoring in 2014, according to the Korean Statistical Information Service. This proportion falls to 69 percent by middle school and 50 percent for high school students.

"Parents may invest early in tutoring to get a head start, especially in stratified school systems," said Professor Mark Bray, a research authority on private tutoring at the University of Hong Kong.

In South Korea, the annual college entry exam is a pathway to obtaining a spot at a prestigious university and landing a job at a top-ranked corporation, or a chaebol such as Samsung and Hyundai.

In fact, if a student is late for the South Korean college entry exam, they can dial the police who will escort them to the testing site.

Although South Korea is unique in suspending daily activities for the life-changing exam, the rest of Asia is not short of late-night cram schools or millionaire tutors who are part of a massive industry in private tutoring.

In Asia, education and exams are treated with great gravity because they are seen as a key determiner of future success. This belief is particularly in East Asian societies such as Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore.

"These countries share a Confucian heritage with a belief in effort and the rewards from education," Bray said.

In Hong Kong, where the high school private tutoring industry is worth about $350 million, star tutors who have the cult following of rock stars can pull in millions of dollars a year.

In Singapore, subway operations were disrupted in late October in the midst of national high school examinations, triggering a national contingency plan for candidates to take exams at other schools.

Even so, parents and students were upset by the turmoil, with local media reporting that some exam latecomers were spotted in tears.

Singapore's private tutoring industry, meanwhile, is worth about $780 million.

South Korean students take their College Scholastic Ability Test. More than 640,000 high school seniors and graduates sit for the examinations across the country.
Getty Images
South Korean students take their College Scholastic Ability Test. More than 640,000 high school seniors and graduates sit for the examinations across the country.

"Of course they go for tuition, every possible one for subjects they are weak in," Isabel Chew, a Singaporean mother of two, told CNBC. She said it was especially important ahead of national exams that determine the school and competency levels that students would be placed in the next stage of their education.

Chew enrolled her 12-year-old in a slate of private tutoring lessons before a national exam this year as he was performing poorly in school. For two months, he attended at least one private tutoring session every day—Monday to Sunday—to prepare for the tests.

"I have no idea how much I paid. I just paid and paid," said Chew, who is a teacher herself. It was difficult to book popular tutors in the run-up to the national exam as there were many other parents trying to do the same for their children, she added.

According to the city-state's statistics department, families now spend almost the double the amount they splashed on private tutoring a decade ago and about a third more than just five years ago.

Rising economic power China is also keen to get ahead in the educational game. Prep services to help students win entry to U.S. schools have spawned a whole new industry.

Andrew Finn, co-founder and managing director of online college test prep company ArborBridge, told CNBC this year that Chinese parents paid upwards of $30,000 to help their children qualify for top-tier American universities.

Even though supplementary lessons are most popular in East Asia, they are becoming more visible throughout the world, and particularly in Europe and South Asia, partly fueled by globalization and the feeling of competitive threat that it brings, said Bray.

In South Asian countries such as India and Bangladesh, teachers who consider their salaries to be low provide tutoring to supplement incomes. In South Europe, the tradition of private tutoring is strong in Greece, Cyprus and Malta.