Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
23rd Jan 2014

High performance, high pressure in South Korea’s education system

South Korea has been lauded 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 take a look at the context for education in Korea and what current trends could mean for university enrolment domestically and abroad.

High investment

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. What’s driving these levels of investment? As reported in The Economist, it’s competition for college places:

“Throughout their children’s school years, they [South Koreans] spend an extraordinary amount preparing them for the brutally competitive day-long university entrance exam, the suneung.”

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.

High performance

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 zeal 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 coveted 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.

Challenging economy

There are, however, signs that it is increasingly difficult for young South Koreans to attain any job in the current economic environment. As we previously wrote in ICEF Monitor:

“The proportion of middle class households in South Korea shrank from 75.4% in 1990 to 67.5% in 2010, according to an August 2013 report by the global consulting firm McKinsey. McKinsey attributes this decline partly to a shrinking number of high-paying jobs with major business conglomerates, a trend that has led to a standstill in middle class income growth.”

Earlier this year, Statistics Korea reported that employment for workers aged 15-29 fell 0.7 percentage points to 39.7%, marking the first time since 1982 that youth employment has dropped below 40%. Last year, 43,000 South Koreans in their twenties, and 21,000 in their thirties lost their jobs. In particular, South Korea’s rate of graduate employment among university-educated 25-34 year-olds is 75%, ranking it among the lowest in OECD countries, and well below the average of 82%. Furthermore, many graduates that do find employment are underutilised. 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.

High pressure

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.

The implications for university participation at home and abroad

The human cost of performance pressure and the unemployment rate among university-educated youth, is giving rise to doubts about the value of a college education. Although the jobs eventually found by university graduates remain better paid and more secure than those available to high school graduates, the gap is narrowing:

“The McKinsey Global Institute reckons that the lifetime value of a college graduate’s improved earnings no longer justifies the expense required to obtain the degree. The typical Korean would be better off attending a public secondary school and diving straight into work.”

Enthusiasm for tertiary education may indeed be waning, as less than 72% of South Korean high-school students went on to university in 2012, a sharp drop from almost 84% in 2008. There are also signs that outbound student traffic from South Korea is softening, a development that has been attributed to demographic change and the current economic climate. South Korea’s birth rate is declining and, in surveys, South Koreans cite financial burdens - particularly the cost of education - as the biggest obstacle to having more children. With income growth stalled, international schooling is increasingly unaffordable for middle class families. Accordingly, fewer South Korean students are studying overseas. Approximately 154,000 students were pursuing degrees at overseas universities in 2012, a 6% drop from 2011. The US, for example, has seen its share of South Korean students dip by 1.4% between 2010/11 and 2011/12.

There is, however, one “non traditional” destination for Korean students that seems to be bucking this trend: China.

The South Korean government has reported a fourfold increase in the number of South Korean students in China, a shift attributed to improved diplomatic ties and rising demand for Chinese language. In 2012, there were 62,855 South Korean students in China, a 283.9% increase from 2001. China is now the second-most popular destination for South Koreans going abroad to study, behind the US with 73,351 students in 2012, and ahead of Canada (20,658 students), Japan (19,994) and Australia (17,256).

Time for a new strategy?

At home, Professor JuHo Lee, an academic at Seoul’s KDI think-tank and a former education minister, has said it’s time to rethink South Korea’s intense education system:

“Test scores may be important in the age of industrialisation, but not anymore. So we look into the ways to reform our education system, not based on test scores, but based on creativity and social and emotional capacities.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Seo Nam-soo, South Korea’s Minister of Education, who has said his “top priority” is trying to nurture students by unleashing their potential and dreams. Among other recent initiatives, the government:

  • is trying to reduce participation in the hagwon – and open up learning opportunities to students from lower-income and rural families – by broadcasting TV lectures on the Educational Broadcasting System (EBS);
  • will introduce test-free semesters in all middle schools by 2016 to give students some relief from rote learning; and
  • will ease the burden of soaring education costs by providing free education – covering admission costs, tuition fees and text books – in all South Korean high schools by 2017.

Mr Seo has also suggested that South Korean’s passion for university is “normalising.” Initiatives such as “Meister schools” (introduced by the previous president) are giving high school students experience working in various trades, and the rate of high school graduates entering the workforce directly has risen from 23.3% in 2011 to 30.2% in 2013. Nevertheless, with 93% of South Korean parents expecting their children to attend college, it may be difficult to resolve the issues facing South Korea’s education system through policy alone. Societal change may also be required, something Mr Seo says is already underway as more Koreans believe people have to do what they like and what they enjoy in order to be happy:

“This perception is very strong among young people. And I believe the trend is accelerating and Korean society is rapidly changing with this trend.”

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