Originally published here: http://www.koreaherald.co.kr
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.
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.
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