This article presents recent trends and issues facing South Korean education

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Originally published here:

on 2007.12.18

This is the 27th installment in a 30-part special report focusing on social changes in Korea since the civil uprising in June 1987, a watershed in contemporary Korean history. A select group of Korean sociology professors will contribute essays analyzing the diverse aspects of societal transformation during the past two decades. — Ed.


First, the intensifying competition for university entrance and the ensuing private tutoring practices are briefly reviewed. Next, the new phenomenon of early-age study abroad will be dealt with. Finally, recurrent issues in educational reform in a transitional society will be explored, and an agenda for policy reform will be suggested.

1. Background

South Korea’s progress in education over the past few decades has been nothing short of spectacular. From the point of view of most international observers, Korea’s educational development is an impressive success story. As one scholar has put it: “The nation’s transformation from a land in which the majority of adults were illiterate and only a small percentage had any education beyond the primary level to one of the world’s best-schooled societies is remarkable.”

With meager natural resources, the mainstays of Korea’s growth have been its people and its education policies. In the past three decades, the government has, through its highly regulated and centralized governing system, attained remarkable educational achievements. South Korea has one of the highest education-participation rates in the world. Both primary and secondary schooling became virtually universal within a few decades after the nation’s liberation in 1945. Korea has achieved universal literacy, compared to its 30 percent literacy in the early 1950s. In 2007, almost all middle school graduates went on to high school. Among OECD countries, Korea ranks first in the percentage of 25-to 34-year-olds who have completed secondary school.

Despite this record of success, there are pressing problems and flaws in the national education system. The crises in public education are hotly debated in South Korea today, and discontent with the nation’s educational system is at a historically high level. A recent national poll taken by EAI, a Korean think tank, indicates that an absolute majority of Koreans are concerned about the “failure” of the nation’s public education system. A national survey conducted (Aug. 1, 2007) by the National Human Resources Panel of EAI reveals such sentiments.

According to the EAI survey, a great majority of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with public education. The polls show that this discontent is acute among those in their 30s and 40s — the age of parents with schoolchildren. The criticism rises as their children advance to higher grades.

2. The intensifying learning competition

Higher education is increasingly coveted in South Korea. There exists a strong culture of expectation and aspiration pertaining to high educational achievement. Families and young people invest substantial money and time in what seems to many outsiders an obsession with preparing for college entrance exams and getting into a competitive university.

Naturally, the burden on children and parents is enormous. Recent Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development studies suggest that young South Korean pupils spend more hours studying than their peers elsewhere. Children are compelled to do nothing but study, postponing everything else until after the examinations. All school activities, including classroom teaching, tend to be focused on preparing for tests. There has been great concern that students’ cognitive and moral development do not meet expected standards because of the fact-oriented and rote-learning climate created by this examination culture.

The policy response by the government has not been passive. National education authorities have been through repeated cycles of introducing and abandoning measures to deal with the overheated examination race and private tutoring activities. Most conspicuous of these is the High School Equalization Policy, an egalitarian equal-opportunity provision for high school education. One of more important reasons why the authorities are adamant about keeping this policy is that polls show strong public support for equal educational opportunity and for eliminating excessive private tutoring, despite the argument that the policy has achieved neither of these objectives since its inception in 1974.

In fact, the intense competition among middle and high school students for entrance into more prestigious schools and private tutoring activities, and the worrisome social divisions this creates, have not been contained. Instead, the race for preferred university places has only intensified in the past few years. Competition among middle school students for entry into a few high-ranking high schools has increased dramatically, as has the use of private tutoring. According to a recent estimate, more than 80% of students receive tutoring from the for-profit private tutoring cram schools.

3. Private tutoring cost and educational polarization

With the practice of private tutoring virtually universal, the cost of education has become an enormous economic burden for most, especially for less-than-well-to-do families. Private educational cost for parents in Korea is much higher than in most OECD countries, although the school fees are the same under the High School Equalization Policy. The vast expenditures on private tutoring, including individual or group tutoring, instruction at for-profit institutions, self-study, internet tutoring, training abroad, and after-class lessons within schools, have given children from wealthier families a significant advantage in the competition to get into the best schools.

With such a feverish race for college admission, it is not surprising to see major differences between those who have access to private tutoring and those who don’t. Other recent data released by the Bureau of Statistics show that, in the first half of 2006, the expenditure by families in the top 20 percent income bracket increased 12 percent, compared to the previous year, whereas the amount spent by the lowest 20 percent income bracket was reduced to 25 percent. The expenditure gap between high-income and low-income families has widened by six to almost seven times, which is the largest differential since the statistics were compiled.

Indeed, the recent increase in the cost of private tutoring due to increased student reliance on such services has become one of the most significant social issues in the South Korean educational system. And the pressure on families regarding the exam race has triggered hot debate on “educational polarization,” which is a key issue in the presidential election.

4. The learning exodus

Study abroad at an early age, which can be seen as an extended form of the private tutoring trend, is also accelerating. There are indications that the educational investment gap — through private tutoring and early study abroad — is widening. This means that parents’ economic status increasingly influences the educational advantages, and perhaps, later on, the employment competitiveness, of children. This new form of educational polarization is emerging as a serious new social challenge and an important issue for educational reform.

The recent boom in studying abroad is also fueled by the greatly expanded demand for English language training, and by the recent government push for globalization. This phenomenon can be seen as an extended form of private tutoring and part of the larger phenomena of learning euphoria and competition for better positions in credential-fixated Korea.

5. Korean educational fever

What drives this unprecedented race for college credentials? What are the reasons for South Korean parents’ apparent obsession with investing in costly activities such as private tutoring and early study overseas for their children? Why do parents think that studying abroad can provide their children with a competitive edge? Why do South Korean students leave their own economically and educationally accomplished country?

To foreign observers, these costly investments may be puzzling, considering the burdens on middle-class families. But this phenomenon is perhaps not so peculiar, when it is seen in the context of the general climate of South Korean society. It is an extension of Korean “educational fever.” For South Koreans, education is considered one of the most powerful means of social and economic mobility. Hence, there is fierce competition for higher levels of schooling and especially for admission into colleges. The competition is so intense that the lessons at lower school levels often deviate from required curricula to prepare for college entrance exams.

It has been argued that one of key factors contributing to this culture of after-schooling is the low quality of public schools. But this does not appear to be the sole reason for the accelerating private-tutoring trend. There are other social pressures and factors fanning the phenomenon. While university admission slots have increased due to demographic changes and relaxed government-enrollment restrictions, the competition to enter elite institutions of higher education has intensified. One factor which is further stimulating the competition to get into “good” universities is the increasingly adverse job prospects for young people. Since the economic crisis of 1997, ordinary college degrees no longer guarantee employment for graduates. There is a tightening labor market for new graduates, especially for those with credentials from less-reputed universities. Such dim prospects inflame the competition to enter elite universities. Also, most Korean parents are willing to sacrifice much to invest in their children’s future.

6. Implications for Educational Reform

There are several major educational issues which the government is trying to tackle: the standard credential competition and strong social demand for university education; the lack of flexibility and diversity in educational pathways and programs; the social concern over the rising costs of private tutoring; the consequent educational polarization due to families’ very different ability to pay to compete; and public outcry for decentralization of school governance. The overriding issue is the adequacy of a public educational system conceived in an earlier era to respond effectively to the changing needs of this society and people as individuals.

The problems of the South Korean educational system are not atypical of many industrializing societies. Often, these systems are too bureaucratic, rigid, inflexible, and low-quality. Educational governance in South Korea has always been highly centralized. The Ministry of Education has general responsibility for all education, from kindergartens to universities; it regulates such matters as the different types of schools’ admissions policies, curriculum, textbooks, and teacher hiring. Distinctions between private and public schools are blurred, as both private and public universities lack autonomy in their management and academic affairs.

The government needs to reexamine its role in education. Its approach in the past has focused on, among other roles, the adoption of inflexible enrollment planning and an allocation approach to meeting schools’ needs. But the attempts to “equalize” educational provisions have resulted in a severe polarization of education opportunities. The labor market is likely to be highly volatile over the coming decades. Educating workers to be more flexible is the most important policy goal, and one which the traditional central-planning approach is likely to inhibit.

Secondary schools need to be given much more autonomy and flexibility to design their programs. The current high school policy should give way to one which will permit maximum selection and choice, thus requiring diversified schools. It is difficult to expect school reform in the name of excellence and diversity under the current equalization system, in which the central educational administrative authority uniformly controls and regulates input, processes, and output. The schools should be given full autonomy, with maximum input from parent and students concerning curricular requirements. With this independence, there must be accountability.

With regard to the recent increase in study abroad at an early age, we need to reexamine the English teaching system at the primary and secondary school level. In the increasingly global and digitalized workplace settings, the importance of foreign languages, especially English, is profound. The need to become proficient in English has been a trigger of the learning competition both domestically and abroad. Much of the accelerating trend of early-age study abroad also seems to be due to the huge demand for English proficiency. English-related ability is becoming increasingly critical in South Korean society and at work. In fact, in recent surveys of leading enterprises, most managers regard foreign language skills as a core requirement for new workers; some of these enterprises invest heavily in language training for employees. Although written tests are disappearing, some form of English tests is used at many firms. Since the knowledge of languages, particularly English, in highly rewarded in the labor market, regardless of its practical utility at work, many students invest extra funds and time in private tutoring. Thus foreign language instruction, especially in English, should be greatly expanded and upgraded.

Looking to the future, it is also necessary to reorient the nation’s schools and universities for the global market. Scholarships for outward-bound overseas students need to be matched by support for incoming foreign students. These scholarship funds can target students in countries of strategic importance. This should include countries with growth potential such as newly industrializing Asian countries, and include poorer countries, mainly in Southeast Asia. At a time when Korea is at the stage of exploring and seeking specific mechanisms for Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), what better way of implementing such objectives than aiding LDCs to develop human resources, and providing future leaders with scholarships and educational experience in Korea? Additional funds can also be secured in collaboration with the corporate sector, which has a strong interest in building markets in various countries.

As for higher education, this is where public policy, specifically, the government’s authority over schools, should be greatly diminished. University autonomy should be the first priority in the deregulation of educational-governance reform. What matters is not the legal status of the institution, but, rather, who manages university functions and quality control. Without exaggeration, Korean universities today resemble nationalized industries which are already obsolete, or on the way out, in other sectors of the society. The validity of the old argument that deregulation will bring confusion and chaos to the system is no longer convincing, considering the current intensity of and problems resulting from educational fever and excessive competition.

There is a clear need to substantially restructure educational governance. The government needs to abandon many of its restrictions on educational institutions by removing legislative and other regulatory limits which impede the ability of Korean schools at every level to respond quickly to domestic and global challenges. Adjustments need to be made, both at the national-policy level and within institutions themselves, in the areas of institutional and program development, selection and admissions policies, curricula content and faculty recruitment.

Systemic government control was perhaps, in the case of h Korea, an effective instrument of education and human resource development in the earlier stages of industrialization. But the role of government needs to change. The state should retreat from the relatively coercive approach that involves quantitative targets and enrollment rationing. It is particularly important to move away from the traditional, rigid state-controlled examination system, and toward an institutionally managed system.

By Ihm Chon-sun


Filed under Education, Korea life

5 responses to “This article presents recent trends and issues facing South Korean education

  1. TK

    This is a very interesting and well thought out essay. I am a Korean-American who taught English in Korea for two years and saw these issues. Many of the issues in Korean society, such as lack of creativity from students to poorly run high schools, stem from the current education in Korea. Your essay delineates all or most the problems found in Korea’s education today and provides a partial solution. The solution to deregulate is a brilliant idea on one level, but I fear complete deregulation because I worry that if too much power is given to the universities and public institutions, they may become corrupt. Corruption is my biggest concern. Your essay does not go into details as to how the ‘deregulation’ would occur, but if the system is planned and well thought out, with strong oversight, then it just may work. The overall idea is great but it is all in the details that matters.

    One thing I’d like to point out is that Korea lacks in public awareness projects. In the US, if there are issues or a need to improve, there are support groups, organizations and parent meetings educating parents children about issues. Yes,Korea has improved vastly in a short period, but the champagne has been popped a little too early. Koreans are basking in the glory and the luxury of life. Too much focus in media is focusing on pop idols and non-sense. Young people are passive and don’t know or care about what’s going on in politics. The reason why I am going on a tangent is because Korea has traditionally solved problems or created success by thinking in the short term and have tried to deal with the ramification whenever they came up. This worked during the earlier years when Korea was rushing to rebuild, but in order to transition from a developing country to a developed country, people’s mindsets and acceptances of new policies must progress parallel to the rapidly changing shells of today’s Korea.

    It is all in the details. It is not enough to just policies. It’s too much for the citizens of a nation to handle. America was not built in 50 years. People had time to process and understand. Educating and explaining these changes are necessary and will prevent frustration, stress and anger. While I was in Korea, interviewed Hard-working adults, house wives, college students and retirees. Many have the same complaint but just accept it.

    Although I am a Korean- American, I was born in Korea and lived my formative years in Korea before immigrating to the US. I know what I say may or may not have a big impact to Korea society, I hope that someone is hearing because I feel frustrated myself with the system because while the politicians are trying to figure out how to do it best; the teachers are frustrated over undisciplined and foul mouthed students and unprepared parents are jumping on the ‘education fever’ bandwagon, the children are the ones who are being harmed the most. Like the article said, much of the education system focuses on rote memorization and lacks creativity.

    More importantly, English is not the means to an end. The article states that due to the government’s push for globalization, there is a demand to learn English in Korea, but cultural awareness is even more important, almost a necessity in order to have a competitive edge. I do not want to offend anyone or stereotypes because not everyone is Korea behaves in the same manner– basic western etiquette and manners. Koreans are very polite too but there are many things that should be taught in schools and to parents. A simple ‘thank you’ or ‘excuse me’, which is not really a part of the Korean vocabulary or habit, can literally affect a foreigner’s perspective of Korea.

    I studied the history of Korea and the path the Korea has led in order to have come thus far, but now there is not reason not to progress. The opportunity is so readily available but all the resources have not been tapped. Korea now must delineate a well thought out plan, execute with strategic goals in mind and command ownership of it.

    Carpe Diem!

  2. TK

    I apologize for all the typos above.

  3. TK

    I was wondering… what changes has been made since the article was written 5 years ago?? If anyone can input, please reply~

  4. Lara

    TK…let me just say to you…yes, in America we may have parent groups and organizations and yes there can be work achieved in these groups, but I just want to say, that the student almost never has a voice in this debate and there is also a LOT that does not get accomplished due to politics.
    Also, while your people are caught up in pop-culture…we have those who suffer from the same fate here as well…we have some of the most ridiculous t.v. programs and reality shows and what i call…roman colliseum type of shows, such as the WWE…to keep people disconnected from the real issues. It may appear that many americans might be politically savy and while there are a lot of us and that may be true…i have often found the parent as part of the problem in the raising of kids and their education as they seem to be focused solely on all the specifics in getting an education and missing the opportunity to get to know their children and for their children to get to know themselves.
    People here in the U.S. are asking themselves…should we do what the S. Koreans have done in order to get the test results they achieve? I fear that we are headed there and from what i can see…both S. Korea and the U.S. will lack innovators and creators, as well as any nation that takes on teaching to take tests.
    There are a lot of Homeschoolers and i have schooled my kids on a couple of different occasions and what i am finding is that if everyone is traveling the same road…then the competition and problems with education and tutoring and such will be globally systemic, with only a privileged few getting the jobs that will be available.
    If you look at MOST creative types and innovators…they are the messiest bunch to figure out….with almost NO direct route to their success, but paths that rarely intersect, except to say that they almost never intersect…that these people tended to dunce out of college, or hate authority, or just got to tinker, or created their own endeavors due to not being included in others creations. In other words, by todays standards…they would be considered practically psychotic…as many might be seen as having learning disabilities since they don’t always get along with the crowd, or authority, or ideas or systems. They may be loners, narcissists, incredibly smart and intellectual…almost to a point of being aggravating to others. In other words…one cannot make an innovator…they come from a place that cannot be constructed…they use the back door and rarely come in through the front. They are often trailblazers and follow no one’s path but their own bliss. But, these people come from those who question the status quo and do not go along with societal norms. So, how could S. korea, the U.S. or any nation possibly construct this person…they can’t and i think the Universities are now the powerful entities that people are concerned that they would become and will drain people of money that could be used toward innovation and creativity.

  5. Lara

    The U.S. suffers from dataitis!

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