Are private schools immune to the gig economy?

JUNE 21 — At first glance, one can easily imagine that private tuition teachers could have/should have/would have replaced private schools by now. 

Even before the pandemic, the single tutor working from the comfort of his/her home appears primed to challenge pricey private schools. Online tuition by a private tutor is to private schools what Grab or Uber is to taxi companies (what more with the rise of Covid-19). 

It certainly makes sense, doesn’t it? Private schools are expensive. Fees range from an average of RM1,500 a month to more than RM4,000. And we’re not even talking about the "high-end" schools like Garden International or Alice Smith.

No one can be blamed for suggesting that the gig economy will eventually overwhelm educational institutions.

And yet... it hasn’t happened. For now.

In Malaysia, the private international school industry has boomed in the past decade. A key factor was the 2012 government decision to lift the restriction on the number of Malaysian students each school was allowed to accept. 

It used to be that international schools could only enrol 40 per cent Malaysian students, now it’s whoever you can bring in. Also, in the same year, foreign schools were granted 100 per cent equity in their businesses. Voilà, our country became a hub for all manner of international schools.

Nevertheless, and even granted the boom, it remains surprising why schooling isn’t following the same route as transportation, shopping, accommodation and so on. 

Taxi companies have struggled since Uber came on board — why not schools? Hotels faced a tsunami of under-booking since Airbnb brought the fight to them – why not schools? Lazada and Shopee have upped the pressure on malls – why not schools?

I posed this question on a Facebook education group last week. Some parents and educators flat out declared that it’s already happened. They say home-schooling and private tuition are already posing a serious challenge to traditional forms of educational institutions.

I’m not so sure.

A student takes online lessons during phase three of the movement control order in Shah Alam April 15, 2020. — Picture by Miera Zulyana
A student takes online lessons during phase three of the movement control order in Shah Alam April 15, 2020. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

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One reason it hasn’t happened (or at least hasn’t happened so drastically, in my opinion) is that schooling is an entirely different kind of purchase. In marketing it surely fits the category of "complex" purchase. 

This is to say that sending one’s kids to school isn’t the same as getting a ride to KLIA nor buying a Junior Suite for three nights.

Schooling remains a multi-tiered “event” with — or so the argument goes— serious and long-term implications. Many parents and groups in society still hold to the belief that a child’s schooling years are among the most important because of its formative, socialising and intellectualising effects.

In other words, to pay for a child to attend school is really to pay for a critical part of a child’s life. And some folks would insist this is “Don’t Play Play” territory i.e. you can’t just "rent" this out to any tutor.

Throw in those all-important (and even "sacred") exams which almost define kids as they’re growing up (eg, SPM, O-Levels, A-Levels, etc.) and it’s no wonder many parents will still pay a premium to ensure their child progresses along that academic road.

This may also explain why early years, primary and secondary schooling, remain strong in the hands of institutional players whereas — in a twisty ironic way — the tertiary (or university) sector is in trouble. 

A huge reason could be that secondary schooling potentially ends with this "grand" achievement of “being accepted into a good university”, whereas a university simply ends with the convocation and cheap sandwiches.

In Malaysia, there’s also the added factor that public government schools remain a strong norm. There was no good equivalent of this in transportation (nobody can get a free car ride from PJ to Klang) or accommodation or shopping. I suspect this alone holds back the onslaught of private teachers cutting into school revenues.

Coming soon: An education super-app?

Having said this, are private international schools truly immune to the gig economy? Or could a powerful platform come along and change the game?

Imagine a Lazada-like educational powerhouse which offers any kind of program, any kind of teacher, any kind of subject, any kind of teaching mode or approach, any kind of learning duration, and any kind of exam certificate to, well, anybody. 

A one-stop portal which hires thousands of teachers, takes in millions of students, partners with hundreds of exam bodies. 

A super-app of sorts.

What then for schools?

But maybe one doesn’t have to wait that long or think that far. Even now, private school fees remain prohibitive for many parents. With the pandemic and lockdowns, I reckon every school leader has faced numerous requests for a decrease in school fees. 

Such requests are informational because you will not get similar pleas from restaurant patrons or Grab clients, all of which highlight the quasi-luxury — and, thus, quasi-dispensable? — nature of private schooling.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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