HONG KONG — Advertisements for star tutors in Hong Kong can be seen all over here: on billboards that loom over highways and on the exteriors of shopping malls. Invariably, the local teaching celebrities are young, attractive and dressed in designer outfits befitting pop stars. But beyond the polished shine, the advertisements also claim that their celebrity tutors can help students ace Hong Kong’s university entrance exam.
“From a marketing perspective, every company wants to present their products with good packaging,” said Antonia Cheng, a celebrity English teacher at Modern Education, one of the city’s largest tutorial chains. “I believe, very simply, that this is a business principle.”
Although Ms. Cheng’s Web site features photos of her in various poses, including in a red cocktail dress with a flash of leg, she maintains that “the quality of lessons is most important.”
Many of the city’s celebrity tutors have their own music videos, Facebook fan pages and products including files and sticky notes. The local news media have reported that some tutors can annually earn more than 10 million Hong Kong dollars, or $1.3 million.
Woo Ching-tung, 17, has attended various cram schools over three years. “The tips the tutors gave were very vague,” she said. “They would name a dozen things that might appear in the exam paper and claim that they predicted the exam questions.”
Complicating matters is the fact that some of the companies operating tutorial centers also run mainstream schools with government accreditation. The schools often encourage students to attend tutorials as well, offering discounts.
Last month, the government examination results of 23 students at Modern College, a subsidiary of Modern Education, were invalidated after the students were found to have plagiarized from the Internet one segment of the exam that is conducted in school. The students filed an appeal, and the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority decided Tuesday to overturn the decision despite evidence of “serious” plagiarism. Instead, the authority said the students would get marks of zero for that portion of the test only.
In response to that verdict, Karin Chan, a public relations representative for Modern College, said Tuesday that the decision had been “fair” and “comprehensive.”
Despite concerns about quality, the private tutoring business for Hong Kong high school students is valued at nearly 2 billion dollars, according to a report in 2011 by Synovate, a market research firm. Modern Education became a listed company in 2011 and reported a profit of almost 32 million dollars in the 2012 financial year. It has 14 branches for secondary school students, with a total of more than 600,000 course enrollments.
Large educational companies, including King’s Glory and Beacon College, make up more than half the local tutorial market and are becoming increasingly popular, according to the Synovate report.
Almost three-quarters of Hong Kong high school seniors use some sort of outside tutoring service, according to a report released this year by Mark Bray, director of the Comparative Education Research Center of the University of Hong Kong.
“What happened in Hong Kong is a bit like hamburgers,” Dr. Bray said in an interview. “We got an industry which produces a form of food which is relatively cheap.”
Tutorial-school chains generally generate most of their revenue through the mass sales of relatively affordable courses. At Modern Education, students can pay about 100 dollars an hour to attend classes with about 100 other pupils.
Tutorial centers in Hong Kong have been accused of capitalizing on a high-stress, exam-oriented education system.
“The marketing and promotional campaigns of tutorial centers are like a form of psychological warfare,” said Mr. Ip, the lawmaker. “They succeed because they manipulate the minds of students and parents. I think many Hong Kong students do not need to attend tutorial schools. But by creating fears, a herd mentality can be instilled among them.”
The highly competitive admissions process for universities appears to be a driving force behind the tutor phenomenon. Hong Kong’s public university system can accommodate only about 18 percent of local high school graduates, and the number of available places has remained about the same for two decades.
The most anxious month for students is July, when exam results and university places are announced, and when local newspapers feature top test scorers as if they were local heroes.
This is the second year under a new system in which students take just one entrance exam instead of two. Some critics say that the overhaul, designed to reduce student anxiety, has done the opposite.
“One of the ironies is that the pressure on one exam is even more than when you got two exams,” Dr. Bray said, calling the new test a “make or break” one.
Also in July, an amended law took effect to rein in misleading advertisements related to the services industry. While the regulations cover a broad range of sectors, including travel agencies and beauty treatments, it also affects tutorial centers.
“Some tutorial schools claim that they have enrolled the most number of ‘five-stars’ students,” said Lam Po-chuen, head of the Consumer Protection Bureau, referring to one of the top exam grades. “You can only publicize such information if this is real.”
Joyce Lau contributed reporting.