HOLE IN KOREA
Jae-Hoon Shim, Seoul
Jae Hoon Shim is a columnist for the Korea Herald in
Seoul. He also writes for the Asian Wall Street Journal,
South China Morning Post, Taipei Times, and Le Monde. He
is a former correspondent and bureau chief in
Seoul, Taipei and Jakarta for the Far Eastern
Economic Review. He has written extensively on security and
economic issues of Southeast Asia. This
article is also published as an Editorial in the Korea Herald,
November 12, 2003:
under the title "Time to deal with our education
It's been said that Korea owes its spectacular
economic development to mass education fever. That was true
three decades ago when a high literacy rate
permitted workers to acquire simple manufacturing skills in a
It's a different story now as we rely on developing
chips and high-end appliances. The new ball game requires an
education system that places creative thinking ahead
of rote learning, but the Education Ministry has long failed to
deliver it. Today, it's no exaggeration to say
that Korea's biggest stumbling block to a higher level of
is its rotten education system.
Consider the recent increase in private education
spending. A survey by the Korea Labor Institute shows that a
typically affluent family in Seoul's Gangnam area spends
an average 1.72 million won ($1,457) a month - more than
a third of upper-income bracket of 5 million won [ED.
About $50K per year] - on private tutoring or cram-school
instructions. This is 2.6 times over the national average.
What it shows is that wealthy parents, no longer
confident about the quality of public education, are taking the
matter into their own hands by relying more on private
tutoring and cramming courses in order to get their children
to colleges and universities of their choice. Korea
is thus taking a risky course of producing a generation of shoddy
cram-course students whose only goal is to gain a
place at a prestigious school.
As a matter of fact, this trend has been in progress
for some decades now, producing a Power Elite that places
private interests above those of the public, or
stays indifferent to the means of attaining its goals.
Quite a few sociologists here have blamed this on
Korea's shoddy, quickie quality of education. Social Darwinism
at the top has in turn built pressure at the bottom
levels of social ladders to stay ahead of the competition at all cost,
bringing violence, some say, to student movements
and labor activism.
Sad aspects like these are evident in the recent
cases of five high school students taking their own life, driven to
desperation by their failure to meet the
expectations of their parents, before and after the Nov. 5 College
Aptitude Test (CSAT).
Of 674,000 students sitting the examination, as many
as 26 percent were "repeaters," taking it more than once in an
effort to achieve higher scores that would get them
accepted by prestige schools.
The pressure for a prestige school diploma is
relentless as it's vital to land them good company jobs, for moving to
professional training like law and medicine and in
preparing them for tests for senior government posts. Those from
provincial colleges have a hard time even getting
job applications accepted at big-name corporations in Seoul.
Unless social anomalies and distortion like these
are corrected, parents will go on doing their utmost to prevent
their children from turning into a permanent
underclass. This obviously is the reason why, according to Korea
Education Development Institute figures, average
household spending on private education soared to 17.6 trillion
won in 2001, close to the 21.6 trillion won spent on
public education. In 1999, private spending came to 2.73
percent of GDP, the highest among OECD countries.
More money doesn't necessarily translate into better
quality education in Korea's case, as it is largely egotism-
driven, and thus seldom linked to lifting or
sublimating social values in general. This may be the reason why
education reform, intermittently debated by the
media, has seldom acquired the urgency it deserves. Now it can
wait no longer.
On the practical side, a sweeping
liberalization of school administration at all levels seems necessary,
unlimited licensing of polytechnics and vocational
schools for students training for industrial or technology jobs.
Tax and financial incentives should go to schools
exclusively offering science and technology courses. And to widen
opportunity for laggard students the CSAT tests, now
administered only once a year, must be conducted several
times a year to cut the number of failures. The
government's argument that it's too "costly and complicated" to hold
it more than once is inexcusable.
University administrators have long complained that
government control over school licensing, tuition, enrollment,
curriculum, etc. has hampered the growth of free and
flexible campus management. Tertiary institutions need more
private initiatives to improve finance through
higher tuition, or other means, to be able to offer more scholarships
to brighter but poorer students, or higher pay to
It means turning universities into a source of bona
fide education, not a diploma factory, and making college
enrollment a matter of choice, not compulsion. Those
preferring prestige schools must be made to pay for them,
either with money or brains. As for the rest, they
should be helped to choose from a multiplicity of schools for a
variety of careers.
Autonomy and market principles, in short, should be
the hallmarks of the reform process. Unfortunately, however,
the Education Ministry is unnecessarily prolonging
the pain of Korean youngsters by dragging its feet on reform.
As a result, parents are voting with their purse or
worse still, with their feet, by sending children overseas.
RELATED ARTICLES in the Korean-American Forum at the
SKAS website (www.skas.org).
1. 1996: "Trophy Education," by M.Y. Han
2. 1997: "To Reform Education, Change the Culture of
Inbreeding," by M.Y. Han
3. 2003: "No Education Reform Without Social
Reform," by M.Y. Han