South Korea’s school system has been declared a model by many foreign politicians, including US President Barack Obama, as the country ranks near the top of most global education rankings.
But at home, there are rising concerns that a school system focused on endless hours of rote learning has serious flaws, as the intense competition to get into top universities puts children under too much stress and creates financial pressures for families to take on additional expensive private tuition fees.
Three-quarters of children have private lessons after school and the same proportion go on to university. The expense contributes to a heavy household debt burden and to one of the world’s lowest birth rates.
Meanwhile, the deluge of graduates and subsequent skills surplus and labour underutilisation take a toll on the economy.
“The obsession with education has spun out of control, creating a monstrous system, in which private tuition is replacing state schools,” says Ahn Sang-jin, deputy director at the civic group A World Free From Private Education Worries.
“Both students and parents have become victims of this abnormal system.”
Devoid of natural resources, South Korea’s recourse has been its human capital. An almost cult-like devotion to learning has been among the driving forces behind rapid economic development over the past half century, creating one of the world’s most highly educated workforces.
The proportion of high school students attending university is the highest among members of the OECD. Education is held in high regard and directly linked to job prospects and marriage.
South Korean students spend more time studying than those in any other developed country, with nearly 80 per cent routinely attending cram school, known as hagwon, often until midnight.
South Koreans are the world’s second biggest per capita spenders on education, at 8 per cent of GDP. They spent Won20tn on after-school education in 2011, with the average family spending 10 per cent of income on private tutoring.
As a result, South Koreans perform exceptionally well in international performance rankings for various subjects, including mathematics and science. They also represent one of the largest groups of international students at US universities.
But there is growing dissatisfaction. Many parents are despairing of the rat race. “We don’t want to send our kids to expensive hagwon but fear that they will fall behind, if not,” says Park Bumi, who runs an association of parents calling for reform.
“This is not real education, just an arduous process to get them through the university entrance exam.”
Although students compete fiercely to gain a place at a top university, about 25 per cent of tertiary graduates under 30 in 2009 were jobless, double the OECD average. Experts say South Korea should strengthen vocational education to lower high youth unemployment, estimating more than 40 per cent of college graduates are overeducated.
“We need a shift of perception towards higher education, because a university degree no longer guarantees social success,” says Park Chun-soo, researcher at Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training. “Education for the sake of education is meaningless, if it is not linked to employment.”
The OECD says the system needs reform to meet the challenges the country faces. Randall Jones, Korea desk head at the OECD, said in a recent report: “Sustaining Korea’s growth potential in the face of demographic headwinds requires further improving the education system to boost productivity growth.”
Productivity is 50 per cent of that of the US, with the contribution of labour input to GDP growth negative since 2009, partly because of late entry of young people to the labour market and the outdated nature of the education system.
South Koreans believe that higher education will be the key to creating a knowledge-based economy. But experts say the current focus on rote learning, placing almost no value on analysis, creative thinking or practical application, bodes ill for the future.
“The talents that Korea Inc needs have become different. In the past, it was enough if you could do well what your bosses told you to, but now we need creative and more innovative people who can develop and apply knowledge, in order to become globally competitive,” says Ryu Ji-sung, researcher at Samsung Economic Research Institute.
Source: Education News