4 downright unethical ways tuition agencies are taking advantage of you

By Ryan Ong

If I were a tutor, I’d have two prices. For $250 a month I’d make (probably futile) attempts to teach. For $500 a month I’d guarantee an A. “By getting more educational resources for the student?” Hah, no. By bribing the school teacher with a $100 cut. This is what happens when you trade character development in schools for better grades:

A Note on Tuition Agencies vs. Tuition Centres

This article refers to tuition agencies, not tuition centres. A tuition agency is a middleman that finds private tutors for children. A tuition centre is an actual school that’s accredited by the Ministry of Education (MOE). The two are only similar in how quickly they murder childhoods.

1. Intensive Revision Courses (as if There’s Any Other Kind)

I used to think “intensive” revision courses were all like 1980’s movie montages – except instead of Rocky skipping rope, the main character would be a kid chugging chicken essence and trying not to cry at a quadratic equation.

“At two agencies I worked with, intensive just meant more sessions. That was okay, but then they suggested I could increase the price of the session as well.

They told me to just say there were special exercises or activities, and to justify it by throwing in some comprehension passages that were a bit more advanced. I was quite shocked by how candid they were about it.”

Alex has seen this happen as well, and on one occasion:

“The intensive revision classes were very popular, and they didn’t have enough tutors. I saw one guy, who taught Economics and not English, suddenly taking on students for English.”

Actually that’s not unheard of, even outside of intensive revision.

2. Unqualified Tutors

Due to some bizarre psychological facet, Singaporeans are suspicious and gullible at the same time, when it comes to checking credentials. We’ll ask for qualifications to be presented, but not check the qualifications.

“At one agency I used to work with,” Alex says, “It was months before they realised that one of the tutors got a degree from a popular degree mill*.”

Sarah suggests you do a quick Google check of any degrees or diplomas the tutor presents. Ensure that the qualifications exist at that institute.

(*A degree mill is a website that claims it’s a legitimate University. But a course lasts three minutes, and the final exam only has two questions: “What is your name?” and “What is your credit card number?”)

3. Attributing Individual Tutors’ Success to the Agency as a Whole

Agencies are not MOE accredited schools. There generally isn’t a shared teaching methodology, curriculum, assessment method, etc. between all the agency’s tutors.

Some agencies have overarching philosophies (e.g. never working with tutors who promote rote learning). But some agencies might not even have that. In light of this, Sarah says:

“When you see testimonials about students with fantastic improvement, you must ask which tutor is responsible. Maybe there’s only one or two good tutors producing results, which the agency has selectively shown. But agencies like to talk as if all of their tutors can perform that well.

Don’t assume that because one private tutor is good, every other tutor in the same agency is just as good. There can be a lot of disparity, as in many agencies each tutor does their own thing.”

4. Change the Agreed Upon Price

This one is also a sore spot between private tutors and some agencies.

In many cases, an agency takes 50% of a tutor’s first month fees as a commission (might vary between agencies). The tutor is free to set their own price, and justifies it to the customers. Unfortunately, a lot of confusion can happen here:

“Sometimes the agency will only quote the customer the amount they’re (the agency – Ed.) to be paid. After the first month, when the tutor asks for the fees, the customers get a shock because it’s apparently double.

And when they call the agency, the agency will say ‘That’s correct, that’s the amount we charge. The rest is the tutor.’ And they will leave it to the tutor and the parent to work it out. Either way the parent or the tutor will be the sucker.”

Alex is unsure if this happens by accident, or on purpose. But Sarah is of the opinion that:

“It’s done on purpose. Because this sort of ‘accident’ never happens with the good agencies, but happens a lot with the fly-by-the-night ones. How can that be a coincidence?

The low price is to lure the customers, and later these scam agencies will pretend it was a miscommunication. They don’t care what happens afterward, because they already have their first month commission.”

The ultimate solution, which both Sarah and Alex agree on, is to go through word of mouth:

“Get the same tutors who are recommended by your friends and relatives,” Sarah says, “Don’t rely on testimonials by strangers, or from online sources.”

This article was first published over at MoneySmart blog on 5 June 2014. It is reproduced with permission.

About The Author (Ryan Ong)

I'm the editor for MoneySmart.sg. I was a freelance writer for over a decade, and covered topics from music to super-contagious foot diseases. I took this job because I believe financial news should be accessible and fun to read. Also, because the assignments don't involve shouting teenagers and debilitating plagues.


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