Written by Camille Boblet—Ledoyen
South Korea, or more officially the Republic of Korea, is a country in Southeast Asia, the tenth largest economy in the world and a middle power. To fully understand the educational challenges of contemporary South Korea, we need to remember the historical context: a former Japanese colony until 1945, the Korean peninsula is an underdeveloped region with an estimated adult literacy rate of 22%. Pre-1945 Korea was a peninsula with very rigid social classes, influenced by Confucian values. The democratization of education beginning in the 1960s – largely driven by the containment of communism – resulted in an increase in the adult literacy rate to 87.6 per cent in 1970, 93 per cent in the late 1980s and 98.8 per cent today. The Korean education system is now ranked 7th in the world in the PISA ranking (Average Score of Mathematics, Science and Reading, 2018) and 6 Korean universities are among the top 200 in the world (Times Higher Education, 2023). Despite all these statistics which show a spectacular evolution, the South Korean system remains deeply unequal: this inequality of opportunity inherited from elitist Confucian values is today the main challenge for the country. Fifty years of economic and industrial development have certainly made Korea the eleventh largest country in the world; however, the social question was completely overshadowed. While the demonstrations of June 1987 enabled the country to become a democracy, they did not introduce the notion of the Welfare-State.
The educational system in Korea places an almost inordinate emphasis on standardized tests. South Korea’s university entrance exam, called Suneung, is widely regarded as the most important test in the country. The exam, which is taken by high school seniors, determines a student’s eligibility for admission to top universities in the country. The emphasis on the test has created a culture of intense competition, which places a significant amount of pressure on students. The pressure to perform well on the Suneung has led to a phenomenon known as “exam hell.” Students are expected to spend long hours studying, attending cram schools, and sacrificing their social lives in order to prepare for the exam. This exam has no equivalent in Western educational systems. There is no national exam in the United States of America to get into higher education. In Canada and Europe, there are high school graduation exams: the High School Diploma in Canada, the Abitur in Germany, the Baccalauréat in France, the Maturità in Italy and the Bachillerato in Spain. In South Korea, the exam is portrayed as “having the opportunity to make or break your future.” According to the Ahn’s Presidential Advisory Council on Education, Science and Technology, more than 200 students committed suicide in 2009 and about 150 the following year. The course of this exam even gives rise to unique situations:
“14,000 police officers are mobilized to ensure good traffic flow. And there is even an emergency number for latecomers. They call it and a policeman comes to pick up the student at his home to take him to his exam center. […] landings and take-offs are banned in all airports during the language tests because the candidates are listening to recordings.” (Radio France, 2017).
Therefore, the pressure is not only on students, but also on parents who invest heavily in their children’s education, often leading to a financial burden. The emphasis on standardized tests has also led to a narrow curriculum. Schools focus on teaching the material that is likely to be on the test, leading to a lack of emphasis on critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills. The result is a generation of students who may excel in memorization, but struggle when faced with real-world challenges.
We should also point out the lack of diversity in teaching methods. The country has a highly centralized education system, with a focus on rote learning and standardized testing. While this approach has led to high levels of academic achievement, it has also resulted in a lack of creativity and critical thinking skills among students. In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the need to introduce more diverse teaching methods to encourage creativity and problem-solving skills.
One of the most significant impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Korean educational system was the sudden shift to online learning. Students were required to participate in virtual classes to continue their education. This shift to online learning presented numerous challenges, including access to technology, internet connectivity, and the need for teacher training in remote instruction. While many students were able to adapt to online learning, others struggled due to the lack of in-person interaction and support from teachers. The digital divide has been a longstanding issue in the Korean educational system, and the pandemic exacerbated this issue. The Korean government implemented several initiatives to address the digital divide, including providing laptops and tablets to low-income families and expanding access to high-speed internet. However, these efforts were not enough to address the disparities in access to technology and internet connectivity.
One of the most significant challenges facing South Korea’s education system is the intense pressure that students are under. As a country with a Confucian tradition, there was an examination to become a civil servant in Korea called Gwageo. Similar to the imperial examination in China, this selection method was very long prized by the Korean elites until its abolition in 1894. The selection and competition between students is therefore ancient and deeply rooted in Korean society. From a very young age, students are expected to perform at an incredibly high level in order to gain entry into top universities and secure high-paying jobs. This pressure can be so intense that it can lead to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Moreover, this pressure on students has led to a culture of cramming and rote memorization rather than a focus on critical thinking and creativity. The level of competition that exists in Europe has nothing to do with that in South Korea. Competition leads to two things among students: considerable inner stress A terrible degradation of human relationships. The other is no longer a fellow man. Korean students do not go to bed before eleven o’clock in the evening, and their school day is hectic. Their minds are focused on work and how to become the best in the class. Everything else is put aside: relationships, music, sports, etc. In the school environment, no one really is a friend. There are only competitors. This competition begins at a young age, with students vying for spots at prestigious elementary schools and continues throughout their academic careers. This competition can be so intense that it can lead to cheating and other unethical behavior in order to gain an advantage.
This competition leads to a number of problems. Firstly, it leads to a lack of diversity in the education system. Students are pushed to excel in certain subjects, such as math and science, at the expense of other subjects, such as the arts and humanities. This focus on certain subjects leads to a lack of well-rounded education. Additionally, the competitive nature of the education system leads to a lack of collaboration among students. Instead of working together to solve problems, students often view their classmates as competitors and are hesitant to share their ideas or knowledge. This lack of collaboration can hinder the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Focusing on the artistic representations of school in South Korean society makes us aware of the importance given to education. School and more generally school performance are over-represented in films and series (K-Drama). To perform poorly in school or to perform less well in school is perceived by society as a tare and something very shameful, which is the central element of the film Parasite (shooted by Bong Joon-ho, 2019). The main protagonist’s family lives excluded from this society of success, in an unhealthy basement, without money and living from day to day. As the film shows, being poor is a disgrace for the people concerned: if they are poor, it is because they have not worked well. To succeed, you have to work hard: this is the leitmotif of Korean culture. Without hard work, there is no salvation. The 2012 release of the film Pluto by director Shin Su-won caused a lot of reaction and controversy in the country. This highlights several issues of the Korean educational system. All the students in the film are doomed to succeed. And they will do anything to achieve it, even dehumanize the other person and stoop to animal behaviour. The main protagonist feels humiliated in front of prosperous children who are more confident of success than he is. It is this feeling of inferiority that will push him to commit the irreparable. Wealthy students are ready to kill their competitors which is the whole plot of the film: students go crazy, don’t sleep at night, commit acts of rape and humiliation on other students.
The Republic of Korea has one of the highest rates of gender inequality among OECD countries. Women’s labor force participation in 2019 is 60%, 5 percentage points lower than the OECD average. The gender pay gap is a concern: while the OECD average is 12.5%, the gap is 32.5%. While this gap is decreasing (it stood at 41% in 2000), it remains indicative of the gender divide. The Republic of Korea has made progress in terms of gender equality, but still has a long way to go to reach the standards of other developed countries. Gender equality must be promoted from school onwards, which is currently not the case, if at all. If it is not able to ensure that young Korean women students have well-paid jobs with equal pay to men, then the country’s economic dynamism and social welfare will suffer.
Students from low-income families or rural areas often have limited access to quality education and may struggle to compete with their wealthier peers This gap in educational opportunities can lead to a lack of social mobility. Students from low-income families may struggle to get into top universities or secure well-paying jobs, despite their academic abilities. This can lead to a cycle of poverty, as these students may not have the resources or opportunities to improve their situation. The fact that tuition fees are very high (4 million South Korean won, or 3,500 euros per semester) is a serious impediment to education for all and prevents any social climbing. For comparison, the OECD average in terms of tuition fees is 2,800 euros per year.
The South Korean education system has been criticized for its lack of diversity and inclusion. South Korea is a homogeneous society, and this is reflected in its education system. The curriculum is focused on teaching Korean history, culture, and language, with little emphasis on other cultures or languages. The lack of diversity in the education system can lead to a narrow-minded view of the world. Students are not exposed to different cultures, religions, or ways of thinking, which can limit their ability to be open-minded and empathetic. The education system in South Korea has also been criticized for its lack of support for students with disabilities. According to a report by the Korea Institute for Special Education, only 31.6% of students with disabilities attend regular schools, while the rest attend special schools. The lack of inclusion can lead to a sense of isolation and stigmatization for these students, who may feel excluded from mainstream society.
CULTURE OF PRIVATE TUTORING
South Korea’s society is well known for the importance of private tutoring (hagwon). Private tutoring has become a necessary part of education in South Korea, as parents feel that it is the only way to ensure their children’s success. According to a report by the Korean Educational Development Institute, nearly 80% of South Korean students attend hagwon. Private tutoring is offered in a variety of subjects, including math, science, English, and Korean language. The cost of private tutoring can vary depending on the subject and the qualifications of the tutor, with some parents paying large sums of money to provide their children with extra support outside of school. The high demand for hagwon has led to a rise in the cost of private tutoring, which can be a financial burden on families. The pressure to succeed academically can be intense, with many students experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety. The cost of hagwon can be as high as 30% of a family’s income, putting pressure on parents to work longer hours or take on additional jobs to pay for their children’s education. The reliance on private tutoring has also led to a lack of trust in the public education system. Parents feel that the public schools are not doing enough to prepare their children for the standardized tests, leading to a loss of faith in the system. This has also led to a lack of support for teachers, who are often blamed for their children’s lack of success.
Students from wealthier families are indeed more likely to be able to afford high-quality private tutoring, which can give them an advantage over their peers from lower-income families. This leads to a cycle of disadvantage, with students from lower-income families struggling to keep up with their peers and falling further behind.
CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
While the Korean government implemented several initiatives to address these issues, the pandemic has underscored the need for greater investment in technology and support for disadvantaged students, as well as a greater emphasis on social and emotional learning. All things considered, the pandemic was the revelation of all the dysfunctions and challenges of the South Korean educational system.
The foremost concern of the Korean government should be tackling gender gap. should promote gender awareness and gender-sensitive education in schools, as well as develop educational programs that challenge traditional gender roles and promote gender equality. Violence against women is a significant issue in South Korea: the government should develop laws and policies that protect women from violence, as well as promote public awareness campaigns that challenge harmful attitudes towards women. The civil society and the government must work hand in hand to change cultural norms that reinforce gender inequality. This can be done through public campaigns, media messages, and the promotion of gender equality in popular culture. South Korea’s educational system could introduce policies to encourage more girls to pursue STEM fields. This could include offering scholarships and financial support to girls studying STEM subjects, as well as providing mentorship opportunities and career guidance. Additionally, schools could work to eliminate gender biases in the classroom and provide female students with positive role models in STEM fields.
The existence of an exam as stressful and complex as the Suneung is problematic. The fact that students are committing suicide demonstrates how this system poses a real threat to student well-being. The government should be inspired by foreign evaluation methods, either similar to the United States of America, where the final grade gives an important place to continuous assessment, or similar to the examinations held in Europe, where oral examination is more practiced.
To address the high cost of private tutoring, South Korea’s educational system could introduce policies to provide additional support for students who need it. This could include providing after-school tutoring and study sessions at no cost to students.
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