CLASSROOM WARS IN SOUTH KOREA ,
Part 1 An education paradox
By Aidan Foster-Carter
Education in South Korea is a paradox, where two big truths clash. Koreans are
incredibly keen, and on many measures do very well. Yet nobody - students,
parents, teachers or the authorities - is happy. And now battles are raging, on
everything from testing and elitism to teachers' politics, free school meals
and corporal punishment.
Let's start with the positive. I'm a bit skeptical when Koreans tell you how
their Confucian heritage values learning. In theory yes, yet for centuries
hardly anyone got to study except a tiny male scholar elite. Modern education -
girls not excluded - only arrived with Christian missionaries in the late 19th
century. Mass schooling for all is newer still. As recently as 1945, when
harsh 40-year rule ended, less than a quarter of Korean adults (22%) were
They've certainly made up for lost time since. South Korea's first rulers were
no democrats, but they knew that so resource-poor a country needed human
capital to develop. Hence even after a terrible war in 1950-53 and despite
being poorer than much of Africa - yes, really - at that stage, under Syngman
Rhee (1948-1960) primary education was vastly expanded. General Park Chung-hee
(1961-1979) extended this to secondary and vocational schooling. By 1987, when
South Koreans wrested back democracy from another general (Chun Doo-hwan), one
third of high school-leavers went on to higher education: more than in the UK
at that time.
Progress continues. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
(OECD) - sometimes known as the rich countries' club; South Korea joined in
1996 - is a fascinating source of comparative facts and figures. For example,
and I'm not changing the subject here: Guess which OECD nationals get the least
sleep? Yup, it's those endlessly toiling Koreans. And who gets most rest? (A
clue: They also spend the most time eating.) Mais oui, bien sur! 
So far has Seoul soared that it is now top in the OECD for upper secondary
education. Nearly all (97%) of young adults aged 25-34 achieve this, compared
to barely half (55%) of the cohort 20 years older (aged 45-54): a big
generational difference. The most striking recent trend is a very rapid
expansion of university education. Here South Korea ranks third in the OECD,
with 2.6 million tertiary students and a 2.5-fold rise in graduate numbers in a
Enrolment is one thing, but what about results? Every three years, the OECD
runs a huge set of tests called the Program for International Student
Assessment (PISA). The latest findings (2009) aren't published yet. The tests
from 2006, taken by 15 year olds from 57 countries - worldwide, not just OECD
member states - show that South Koreans had improved by the equivalent of a
whole school year since 2000. They placed top for reading and fourth in math.
Scores were high too for science and problem solving, despite criticisms that
Korean pedagogy stresses learning by rote and discourages creativity or
thinking outside the box.
Brilliant or what? In 2007, the BBC described South Korea, along with Finland,
as "among the superpowers of education". Like industrialization, this is
another great Korean success, which much of the rest of Asia or indeed the
world can only envy. Surely this is cause for celebration and
self-congratulation? Everyone must be so proud, accomplished, and happy.
Well, no. Or even hell, no. On the ground, that's not the way South Korean
education looks or feels. Nobody seems happy, while many are downright
miserable. How can this be?
Some other OECD statistics offer a pointer. For one thing, classes are large.
Primary schools have on average 36.3 students per class and a pupil-teacher
ratio of 32:1. The respective OECD-wide averages are 22 and 17.
What the stats don't tell is how drearily authoritarian classes often are.
Flair and creativity are rarely rewarded. Instead, teachers drum into students
a ton of stuff they must learn by rote so as to jump through hoops leading up
to the all-important university entrance examination.
Then there is the cost. Primary schooling is free, but not thereafter - let
alone the ubiquitous hagwon or supplementary schools. In 2003, education
took 5.8% of South Korean household spending, more than twice as much as any
other OECD nation.
Last year, parents poured over US$19 billion into private education, despite
the economic downturn. A study in March by the Seoul Metropolitan Government
(SMG) found that families in the capital spend on average 580,000 won (US$522)
a month on private education: almost 16% of their average income.
So South Korea's educational success comes at a cost, in many senses. Let's
start with the beneficiaries, who ironically feel more like victims. Korean
childhood these days is frankly not much fun. When do you ever get time to
play, amid all that learning and cramming?
Not so long ago the pressure was concentrated in the final years of high
school: the so-called "exam hell", when you cram for the entrance test to win a
coveted place at an elite university. They say four hours' sleep a night may
get you into Sodae (Seoul National University, SNU) - but slackers who need
five hours just don't cut it. Mothers ply their weary offspring with coffee at
2 am, even propping their weary eyelids open with matches: study, study, study
All that is bad enough, but now the mania has spread right through the system.
In April, the Bangkok Post highlighted a typical eight-year-old. After six
hours of schooling, Ho You-jin comes home - only to head straight out for a
further five to six hours of hagwon. For South Korea, this is normal.
You-jin admits to being tired, and complains she is bored at school.
For parents, the strain is on their nerves as well as wallets. If all this
stress and effort were done for sheer love of learning, it might make a shred
of sense. But it isn't, or not primarily.
Rather, what drives it all is an intense competitiveness. The idea is to get
ahead, and get into the best college, the best high school - even the best
primary school. That way, your child will gain not just a good education, but
also the status and connections indispensable for his or her future success,
especially in the two markets that really count: career, and marriage.
Most parents complain about the quality of state schools and the cost of hagwon.
Thousands, if they can, send their kids to be schooled abroad - in the US,
Canada and elsewhere - for two reasons: to improve their English and avoid the
pressure. Yet this creates its own strains. Mum usually goes too, so this
splits families. Fathers, known as "wild geese", pay the bills and fly to see
their children when they can. The strain can lead to divorce or even suicide.
We're talking school pupils here. Many more go abroad for university education.
Not long ago, over 100,000 South Koreans formed the largest foreign cohort in
US colleges. Now down to third place with 75,000 in 2008/09, behind burgeoning
India and China, this is still enough to make a sizeable impact on the current
But back to school. Driven kids, pushing parents - and teachers too have their
gripes. They feel undervalued, having to cope with big classes often bored and
tired from their stint at the hagwon. Yet in a literal sense being a
schoolteacher in South Korea is far from unrewarding. According to the Korea
Development Institute (KDI), a leading state think-tank, teachers' salaries are
the second-highest in the OECD - and over twice the local average income per
Pupils, parents, teachers - and what of employers? Companies complain that
today's school and college leavers lack practical skills. Few young Koreans
will now touch the so-called 3D jobs - dirty, difficult, dangerous. Migrant
workers from poorer Asian lands now fill that gap, legally or otherwise.
Samsung finds it has to retrain even engineering graduates, while thousands of
over-qualified arts majors struggle to find any work, or stop looking.
Including drop-outs, graduate joblessness may be as high as 10%: a devastating
dead end after all the money and hours spent on the hagwon treadmill.
The final stakeholder is government, which bears the brunt of everyone else's
complaints while fretting that few South Korean universities - despite frenetic
local competition to get into them - feature at all in global league tables.
Similarly, it bothers Koreans that they have yet to win a single scholarly
Nobel Prize. (Then-president Kim Dae-jung was the Nobel Peace laureate in 2000,
for his struggles for democracy and outreach to North Korea.)
This then is the sad paradox of South Korean education. Huge success, but scant
satisfaction. You want to applaud, but also weep. It's remarkable, but grim.
Everyone knows it's wrong, but no one agrees on how to break the vicious
circles and build a better system. Right now, two opposing views about this are
locked in battle - as I'll discuss in my next article.
Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and
modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance consultant, writer and
broadcaster on Korean affairs. A regular visitor to the peninsula, he has
followed Korea for over 40 years.