Korean Education: Unmasking the Struggle To Achieve Reformation And Reconstruction

   South Korea has been praised for having an education system that helped transform the country and rapidly grow its economy over the past 60 years. Today, its high-performing students are the envy of many nations worldwide. But with graduate unemployment on the rise and increasing concerns about the human cost of performance pressure, some are starting to question whether South Korea’s intense education system needs a rethink. In today’s post we look at the context for education in Korea and what current trends could mean for university enrolment domestically.

   The Korean school system is based on six years of elementary school (age 6-12), three years of junior high school (age 12-15) and three years of senior high school (15-18). Suneung, is apparently the most important stage in school life: The University entrance exam. South Korea falls silent every second Tuesday of each November: heavy trucks banned from the streets, businesses opening late to free the roads, delayed flights so that students can focus without distractions. Moreover, anyone running late to the exam site can ask for a free police escort to rush them straight to the destination. Parents usually pray in various religious gatherings where special sessions are held for the students. Suneung, the college entrance exam that takes place once every year, defines the future of these people. In a hierarchical country such as South Korea, the University one has attended is essential in finding a suitable job and consequently, a well-to-do position in society.

   Education is a serious matter for South Korea. The country invested heavily in education during the second half of the 20th century, and in 2010, spent 7.6% of its GDP on all levels of education – significantly more than the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average of 6.3%. During that same year, South Korea spent 2.6% on tertiary education, a figure also above the OECD average of 1.6%. In 2009, spending on private tuition in South Korea was the highest as a proportion of GDP among OECD countries, and according to the Ministry of Education, South Koreans spent 19 trillion Won (US $17.9 billion) on private tuition in 2012. Overall, education accounted for nearly 12% of consumer spending in 2012 – a large amount of which went toward extra English classes. And exam preparation begins early. According to Statistics Korea, four out of five primary school children receive private education, typically in cram schools known as hagwon. Private schooling in South Korea operates on an “industrial scale,” with 75% of all South Korean children attending one of the country’s 100,000 hagwons. The outcome of this huge investment in education has been high academic performers.

   South Korean students consistently rank at the top of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey results in reading, mathematics, and science. South Korea is also one of the highest educated nations in the world: in 2011, 64% of its 25-34-year-old population had university degrees, the most in the OECD, and well above the average of 39% among OECD states. Entry to a top university has traditionally led to a prestigious, secure and well-paid job with the government, banks, or one of South Korea’s chaebol – family-owned conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai. As such, it’s no wonder that, “South Korea’s enthusiasm for education and individuals’ desire to get into a prestigious university is higher than in any other country in the world,” as Kim Hye Sook, professor of education at Yonsei University in Seoul, recently explained to Bloomberg news. South Korean university graduates are also prepared to “queue” for desired jobs, adding to their educational credentials and enduring unemployment until a job becomes available. Among the 5.4 million South Koreans aged 15-29 who are not working, 11% are preparing for professional exams. There are, however, signs that it is increasingly difficult for young South Koreans to attain any job in the current economic environment.

   The Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training reports that 24.6% of four-year university graduates are working in jobs for which they are overqualified – a figure almost three times more than the OECD average. Increased uncertainty about job prospects may do little to quell national anxiety around a college entrance exam that is already regarded as having lasting consequences for one’s career and life. Whereas some believe that the entrance exams help ensure fairness and objectivity, others have compared them to a “fever.” Despite a government-imposed 10:00 p.m. curfew on cramming schools, students often spend long hours – from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. – studying at home, at school, at expensive hagwon and online. And although they perform well on international tests, South Korean students’ interest in school and satisfaction rate is low, relative to their peers in other OECD countries. According to the Korean Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation, this is because South Korean students learn to prepare for their university entrance exams, as opposed to learning for practical use. More disturbingly, Statistics Korea and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family last year reported that worry over career and academic performance is the main reason youths aged 13-19 contemplate suicide. According to the report, suicide was the biggest cause of death among people aged 15-24 in 2011.

   To conclude, the Korean government acknowledged all the issues of the Korean school system and is bent on making improvements. In fact, on March 30th, 2017, at Seoul Office of Education, a special lecture was given by Cho Hee-yeon, Superintendent of Education. He explained the features of the current school system noting its authoritarian and hierarchical paradigm based on rote memorization of knowledge and high results. Consequently, the goal is to reform the current system introducing a democratic system based on creativity, education equality, and only-one education (each student is different and should be evaluated according to different criteria). Mr. Cho also mentioned collaboration with parents with the creation of a parents’ association in each school seeing how Korean relatives are very involved in their children’s education. Hopefully, these new proposals will be implemented soon because the current Korean system does not consider the needs children of all ages. It is common sense that happiness and self-confidence are important for human well-being and for job satisfaction.


Team 13 Asia Student Summit 2018 Batch 2