More HE students seek private tutoring – Is it a problem?

While significant attention has been given to private supplementary tutoring (PST) in pre-university education, private tutoring in higher education has received little attention in the academic literature, despite it becoming more common in North African countries.

University World News interviewed higher education experts from five North African countries, including Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, to get their views on the reasons behind the emergence of the PST phenomenon in their countries and ways to regulate it.

Egyptian professor Hamed Ead, based in the faculty of science at Cairo University and the former cultural counsellor at the Egyptian Embassy in Morocco, confirmed to University World News that private tutoring “has spread to Egyptian universities”, confirming the findings of a study into undergraduate medical student perceptions of PST in Egypt.

Personal attention

“There are several reasons why university students turn to private lessons, including the difficulty of the study courses, and, therefore, they seek private lessons to receive personal attention and guidance to improve their understanding,” Ead said.

“Also, the desire to get higher grades: as a result of pressure to secure scholarships, admission to graduate programmes, or enhance their career prospects,” Ead added.

He said students may also feel that the quality of teaching in their university courses is insufficient, and “they resort to private teaching to supplement their learning and fill gaps in their knowledge”.

“Finally, the phenomenon of tutoring during exam periods is increasing as an additional aid in exam preparation, time management and study strategies,” Ead noted.

Libyan Professor Ahmed Attia, head of faculty affairs at the faculty of medical technology at the University of Tripoli, Libya, told University World News that “most” students at government universities in Libya use PST as a supplement to ordinary classroom tuition because they seek private classes with fewer students.

Moroccan professor Abdellah Benahnia, a part-time international researcher and professor at the Superior Institutions of Science and Technology, an associate college of Cardiff Metropolitan University in Casablanca, told University World News PST among university students in Morocco was “perhaps a newly introduced phenomenon” to society.

“This was absolutely not the case when education was in a very good shape during the past decade. Therefore, we notice today (more than at any time before) that, in Morocco, university students often seek PST to navigate complex subjects and receive personalised support for their studies,” Benahnia said.

In search of an ‘extra edge’

“In my opinion, students turn to PST for an extra edge in understanding challenging topics, or perhaps trying to get higher scores to either secure a job opportunity later, or get a scholarship or acceptance in further studies,” Benahnia said.

Tunisian professor Sami Hammami, the former vice-president of the University of Sfax in Tunisia, told University World News he did not believe the use of PST in Tunisian universities was “widespread”.

“However, we have noticed for a number of years the existence of PST practice in certain institutions, such as preparatory schools, for the entrance examination to engineering schools,” Hammami said.

“PST is particularly present in certain specialities such as mathematics and physics, and support lessons are generally carried out by public sector teachers themselves, and paid for by the parents of students.”

Hammami said “conservative” Tunisian university teachers believe that paid support is “ethically unacceptable because it derogates from the principle of equal opportunity that characterises public education and favours those who can afford to pay for it”.

Algerian mathematician Professor Sadallah Boubaker-Khaled, from École Normale Supérieure in Algiers, Algeria, said PST in university education had not yet become widespread, despite its existence.

“I do not think it has become a phenomenon,” he said, adding: “I do not know how one can get rid of it, but the teacher’s role is very important in preventing the students from resorting to private lessons, and for the teachers to refrain from offering such lessons,” Boubaker-Khaled said.

Educational inequality

Ead said that, whether or not PST was a “good or bad” phenomenon depended on whether private teaching “provided personalised attention and support tailored to the student’s individual needs, which may not be possible in a normal classroom environment” or whether it was able to improve a student’s academic performance.

“It can also help with specific areas of weakness, providing a more personalised learning experience,” Ead said.

“On the other hand, private lessons support educational inequality, as they are often accessible only to those who can afford them, which widens the gap between students from different socio-economic backgrounds.

“The emphasis on achieving higher grades through private tutoring also overshadows the importance of holistic learning, critical thinking and personal growth. In addition, excessive reliance on tutoring may hinder students’ ability to develop independent study and self-learning skills,” he said.

Attia agreed that PSTs have advantages and disadvantages.

“A large classroom environment can be highly distracting, preventing students from being able to use their time wisely. Since private tutoring usually happens in a quiet and peaceful setting, there are fewer distractions. Tutors can give students their full attention, and students can fully focus on the study material. But the cost is the disadvantage,” Attia said.

According to Attia, students pay LYD100 (US$20.67) for a series of lessons, and 50%-70% of the fees is for the tutor. Not all students can afford these costs. Some tutors charge an hourly rate, which is roughly LYD50 (about US$10.33).

“Private tutoring for university students is a means of enhancing learning outcomes, benefiting individual, social and economic development but it exacerbates the already existing social and urban-rural inequalities,” Attia said.

He also pointed out that it was “susceptible to corruption” and was “a source of disturbance” where university staff are found to provide private tutoring and prove to be more engaged in their private lessons than those in public universities “in which the average absenteeism rate is alarmingly high”.

Deficiencies in sector

Attia said the PST phenomenon was linked to “deficient governance of the higher education sector as a whole, along with a lack of adequate university staff, resources and instruments within higher education institutions”.

He said the best way to deal with PST was to make it obligatory for universities to hold small classes with several groups. “This will make ordinary classrooms the same as the private ones,” Attia said. “It is the responsibility of the ministry of higher education to provide a suitable and effective environment for each student inside the universities.”

Benahnia said there were many steps that the people in key positions at universities or the ministry could take to put an end to the phenomenon.

“These include working on introducing enhanced university resources through strengthening academic support services within universities to reduce the need for external tutoring, along with providing adequate and advanced up-to-date teacher training to equip professors with diverse teaching techniques to accommodate different learning styles,” Benahnia said.

“For the sake of equity, poor students should be financially assisted through provision of scholarships or subsidies or they should be able to access tutoring like everybody else.”

Benahnia said regulation and transparent measures were needed to establish guidelines for regulating tutoring services, ensuring quality and preventing exploitation.

“Finally, we all need to remember that, once we have high-quality teaching, the search for extra private tutoring would be foolish and redundant.”

Peer-to-peer tutoring

Ead agreed that, to deal fairly with the matter, it was necessary to improve the quality of teaching and learning within universities so as to reduce the need for private teaching.

“This can be achieved through training and development programmes for faculty members, promoting interactive and participatory teaching methodologies, providing adequate academic support within the university system, establishing academic support centres or educational programmes on campus or providing free or affordable educational services to students.”

He said in order to create a supportive learning community within the university, peer-to-peer tutoring could be promoted, and students who excel in certain subjects could be trained and hired as peer tutors to help their fellow students.

“The university should reduce this phenomenon by raising awareness among students about the disadvantages and possible limitations of tutoring, highlighting the alternatives and available resources provided by the university itself,” Ead said.