Asia’s Parents Suffer from ‘Education Obsession,’ Go Deep into Debt

The commitment to education is strong in East Asia, and for some parents the stress of providing a high-quality education for their children can become too much. This education fever forces the families to make rush decisions to afford the high bills, and some parents have gone to the extent of taking their own lives when their family responsibilities become too much bear.

According to Yojana Sharma of BBC, Andrew Kipnis, an anthropologist at Australian National University and author of a recent book on the intense desire for education in China, says the amount spent on education is “becoming extreme”. With education being seen as the only means of ensuring social mobility, workers want their children to do better than themselves and can go deep into debt to realize that.

“Families are spending less on other things. There are many cases of rural parents not buying healthcare that their doctors urge on them… Part of the reason is that they would rather spend the money on their children’s education,” said Mr Kipnis.

“Parents may be forced to put off building a new house, which they might have been able to do otherwise,” said Mr Kipnis who did the bulk of his research in Zouping district in Shandong province, among both middle-class and rural households.

“It can be very intense. They often borrow from relatives. Of course some people have difficulty paying it back,” he concluded.

Per capita annual disposable income in China rose by 63.3% in the five years to 2012, yet consumer expenditure on education rose by almost 94%, according to a Euromonitor survey.

Educating a child not only involves the parents but also the extended family as a whole, according to Todd Maurer, an expert on education in Asia and partner at the consultancy firm Sinica Advisors.

“It goes beyond tiger mothers, it also includes tiger grandmothers and grandfathers,” he said.

High levels of education spending are evident in China, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, India and Indonesia. In South Korea, where the government believes “education obsession” is damaging society, family expenditure on education has helped push household debt to record levels. 28% of South Korean households cannot afford monthly loan repayments and are hard pressed to live off their incomes, according to LG Economic Research Institute. A huge proportion of that income – 70% of Korean household expenditure, according to estimates by the Samsung Economic Research Institute in Seoul, goes toward private education meant to get an educational edge over other families.

Michael Seth, professor of Korean history at James Madison University, and author of a book on South Korea’s education zeal said that families cut back on other household spending “across the board.”

“There is less money to spend on other things like housing, retirement, or vacations, he said. “Every developing country in Asia, especially China, seems to have a similar pattern.”

The highly competitive examination system and rising expectations of East Asian students are often cited as the cause.

“The Korean education system puts enormous pressure on children,” said Prof Seth. “The only way to opt out of the system is not to have children. It is so expensive to educate a child that it is undoubtedly a factor in South Korea’s very low birth rate.”