By Kim Tae-jong
Signboards of hagwon, or private cram schools, hang from buildings in Daechi-dong, a popular hagwon district in southern Seoul. Hagwon operators say the government¡¯s recent crackdown on them will be short-lived at best. / Korea Times File
The government's recent pledge to strictly apply regulations on the operation of private cram schools is expected to have no substantial impact on lowering tuition costs for parents.
Since President Lee Myung-bak called for Cabinet members to come up with comprehensive steps to cut hagwon charges, education authorities have unveiled a series of measures to punish those overcharging students.
However, many hagwon operators believe the government's crackdown will be short-lived at best. There are many tricks to avoid penalties and technically it is impossible to monitor all of them with limited manpower, they said.
The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE) recently said it would cancel licenses of hagwon if caught making false claims. Under the new regulations, educational authorities will target illegal practices such as deceptive advertising, overcharging of fees and scheduling classes after 10 p.m.
``The new rules may work somehow,'' said the director of an English school in Daechi-dong, a popular hagwon district in southern Seoul. ``But that won't be a serious threat to us since most hagwon operators do not think they will face the maximum penalty but only minor warnings.''
Only a small number of hagwon that charge way more than they reported to authorities will face being shut down. However, those charging slightly higher fees than reported are expected to continue doing business as usual.
``The tuition fee regulation will not work in most cases as parents and students know which cram schools are better and they are willing to pay more for better programs,'' he said.
Still, the authorities are committed to canceling the licenses of rule-violators.
``We have come up with stricter measures after criticism on our previous light penalties against violators,'' an official from the SMOE said. ``We are committed to enforcing the rules.''
But some small-sized hagwon operators say they have their own tricks to dodge bullets.
``Even if a hagwon is stripped of its license, the owner can reopen another one under the name of a family member. That happens often in the cram school market,'' a manager of a hagwon in Daechi-dong said. Parents and students will follow their teachers even under a different named school, he said.
Many operators are also skeptical about the possibility for regulators to monitor all hagwon, he said.
``As far as I know, there are only three civil servants in southern Seoul, where about 5,000 hagwon are operational in the district alone. How can the three monitor them all?'' he said.