Education achievements and social changes in Korea: Education heat-wave fuels efficient production of brainpower

Perspectives Internationales 08/09/2015 0

Korea[1] shines with its achievements in education. The recent survey of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) lists the country as one of the top performers. Records of the investment on education and the number of students enrolled at each level have also escalated dramatically in the last few decades. (OECD 2014a) It is especially remarkable when we consider the fact that 70~80% of Koreans were illiterate less than a century ago.[2] There is no doubt that well-educated and skilled labour has been at the core of Korea’s fast economic growth. (Pillay 2010, Lee 2003) It seems – and international scholars and politicians alike share the view – that Korea has succeeded in providing the right environment for education.

The rosy picture quickly fades away with harsh analysis within and outside Korea. Ripley, in her recent endeavour to illustrate everyday life of high school students in three chosen ‘world education superpowers’, describes the Korean education system as ‘the pressure cooker model’ where students suffer while studying compulsively. (Ripley 2013) Kim claims that the conditions which brought high levels of participation and attainment in education are not ideal for ‘good education’. Education in Korea is valued as a means to success, not so much as a fulfilment of intellectual curiosity nor a way towards self-realization. (Kim 2014)

Whether an emphasis is put on the success or on its side effects, it is agreed that education is a serious issue for every Korean, and the concerns over education are a basis of achievement and an object of criticism. This article aims to explain how Korea’s education system and its values have changed throughout time and whether such development can help to better understand the present symptoms of ‘education heat-wave’ in the country.

Development of modern education

Until the 19th century, and especially during the agricultural Joseon Dynasty (AD 1392-1910), education was mainly delivered in the form of literature reading for upper class men.[3] (Choi 2006) Modern education was ignited mostly by external forces in the late 19th century. The increase in foreign trade and commerce led to the establishment of institutions which taught more technical subjects, such as foreign languages and commerce, which were previously perceived as inferior to Confucian morals.[4] The appreciation for applied scientists and engineers came later during 1960s~1980s when they were respected as a pillar for the growth of industries.

Missionaries from the U.S. were also contributors to modern education. They could officially come to preach in Korea since April 1885, and they used medical science and education in their attempts to evangelise the country. They founded several private schools, some of which have now become prestigious private universities.[5]

Japan had built some modern education facilities on the Korean territory during the period of Japanese occupation between 1910 and 1945, as it deemed a provision of minimal education would help the colonial administration. These schools, however, have focused on teaching to Japanese nationals living in occupied Korea. The education provided to a limited number of Korean students was intended to assimilate them to the Japanese Empire. From the 1930s’, the use of Korean language or the teaching of Korean traditions were strictly forbidden. (Kim 2013)

As a consequence, education after the independence in 1945 put more importance on nationalism and ethnicity than on individuals. Provision of basic education was at the centre of the new education policy, and the objective of education was to reduce the illiteracy rate and to enlighten people in order for them to become citizens of the newly independent Republic of Korea. This rather totalitarian education policy has hindered the development of a democratic education philosophy in the following decades. (Park 2001: 547-550, Byun et al. 2006: 338)

The first constitution of the Republic of Korea (1948) stipulates in article 16 that “all citizens shall have an equal right to receive an education” and “at least primary education shall be compulsory and be free of charge.” (Kim 2013:199) The compulsory education policy increased the enrollment rate for primary school for children of school age from about 50% right after the independence to 95.3% in 1960. The infrastructure to provide the free compulsory education, however, had not been put in place, and there were insufficient teachers and classrooms. In the 1950’s, one class had often more than 100 students, and one classroom was used in rotation for 3 or 4 classes.

It is only natural then that the country has a large educational gap between older and younger generations as the OECD report points out.[6] An average person in their 60’s would have experienced the Korean War or its aftermath as an infant. The same person would have studied with 100 other students in one primary school classroom sometimes in the evening and skip classes to help their family farming or looking after other siblings. Even if they stopped studying before tertiary education, they would have gotten a job without much difficulty during the fast economic growth in 1960’s and 1970’s, though manual work did not pay well.[7] The wage gap between manual work and office jobs was large, and therefore the office jobs gained more respect in the society.[8]

Education became a personal and family investment for a better future, and demands for higher education were immense. The significance put on education can be observed as early as the 1960’s. There was an intense competition for the middle school entrance exam and parents spent money on private tutoring of children at primary school, some of whom had to spend an extra year to get into a middle school. This was when the Korean GDP per capita stood at 79 dollars, thus it suggests that the extensive investment on education as observed now is not solely a result of economic prosperity.[9] Such enthusiasm caused the entrance exams for higher education to be a ‘hell’ as capacities were limited, and the insufficient capacities at higher education facilities were considered the main problems of the Korean education system until around 2000. The response of the government was to increase the student capacity of middle school in 1969; change the high school entrance to be a uniform exam with a lottery allocation and increase high school student capacity in 1974; double all the universities’ entrance quota in 1981; and allow new universities to be founded without an authorization, but a (criteria fulfilling) registration in 1997. (Statistics Korea 2011)

How sweltering are Koreans about education in 2015?

Most of high school students participate in self-study sessions in the evening unless they have private tutoring and stay at school until 10~11pm. These sessions were first introduced when some students did not have a space to study after school in their crowded homes with extended families. Nowadays, the pressure to study results to a large extent from a peer effect.

On the day of university entrance examination (Suneung; equivalent to the Scholastic Aptitude Test in the U.S.), the office hours for public institutions are delayed for one hour to reduce the morning traffic. Policemen are in charge of transferring those students who might be late for the starting hour. During the hour of the listening comprehension, landing and take-offs of airplanes are forbidden. The whole society is aware of the heavy burden placed on students and tries to avoid any hiccups, which could ruin what many students consider as the most important day in their lives.

Korea has the highest private expenditure on formal education at all levels of education among OECD countries, spending 2.75% of GDP as of 2011.[10] On top of this, money spent on private tutoring and ‘shadow education’ (or private complementary classes) reached 18,229 billion won in 2014. The majority of the private expenditure is still spent on courses in school subjects, making shadow education an important part of education. Cities and provinces have introduced ordinances prohibiting these private institutions to teach after 10~12pm to constrain an excessive burden on students. Ripley highlights the shadow education to be epitome of a free-market education. Quick improvements on test results are required for these institutions to survive, and therefore they become sufficiently efficient in giving techniques and tips to perform better in tests. Kim concluded in his analysis of private education in Korea that the spending on shadow education increases the chance of better performance in the exams. (Kim 2010)

The household expenditure on education increases as the education and economic levels of parents increase. The shadow education, therefore, is the most ripened in areas where wealthy families reside. Thanks to the shadow education, high schools in these districts are considered to be the best ones (except special purpose schools on sciences, foreign languages and international studies that require separate entrance exams), as high schools are ranked in accordance with the number of students who enter Seoul National University, the best university in the country. Parents rush to these districts and make the real-estate prices even higher.

It is not only money and time parents are ready to sacrifice. Education of their children sometimes takes priority over family life as well. ‘Goose daddy’ (kirogi appa) is a neologism familiar to Koreans. It refers to a single household of a father who sent his wife and children abroad mainly to enhance the children’s foreign language skills or as an escape from the Korean education system. A goose daddy stays in Korea to earn money, then transfers a large part of his income to his wife and child living abroad to finance household expenditures and cost of education. Sampled survey carried out in 2006 illustrates that these `goose daddies` send most of their income to their family, and often suffer from emotional difficulty such as loneliness (40%), health issues (24%) and financial pressure (17%).[11]

Can the heat be tolerated?

The significance put on education can encourage educators and students to perform better. However, the level of commitment can become excessive, and can lead to negative fallouts. There are indications that the huge pressure created by this educational fever works adversely to students and parents, and may cause structural problems.

UNICEF has warned the Korean government that Korean children lack the freedom to play. It goes further, urging that the right to play, of which the children have been deprived, should be protected and restored to them.[12]

Even more worrying is the upward trend of youth suicide rate. The average suicide rate for youth in OECD area has decreased from 7.9 in 1990 per 100,000 to 6.3 in 2010, while the same rate has increased from 5.9 to 9.4 in Korea. (Kim 2013) These figures correspond to the findings of the PISA study that Korean children and youth are the least happy at school. (OECD 2014b: 21)

The enormous pressure to excel in education does not only lie on students but also on parents. Anderson and Kohler take Korea as an example to argue that “East Asia’s ultra-low fertility rates can be partially explained by the steadfast parental drive to have competitive and successful children”. (Anderson & Kohler: 196) The economic and emotional burden of being coaches of their children can be overwhelming.

The policy to widen opportunities to have tertiary education also has its downside. The number of university graduates has already exceeded the number of applicants who can be taken in by the job market. The employment rate is higher for vocational high school or technical college graduates than university graduates. Despite this fact, Koreans prefer to go to university with a hope of avoiding manual labour and getting a permanent job in established organizations. The structural mismatch will only get worse in a slowly growing economy as the excessive number of university graduates accumulates in the future. (Oh 2014)

Education intertwined with social changes

As in other societies, the status of education in Korea cannot be separated from social changes. I identify how the Confucian culture and the speed of change in Korean society influence education.

Meritocracy vs Kleptocracy

Scholars looking at education in East Asia recognize Confucian culture as a success factor or a reason for the education fever in the region. (Marginson 2011, Weiming 1996) It is acknowledged that Confucian culture values the pursuit of learning and respects knowledgeable individuals. Gwageo, the highest-level state exam during Goryeo and Joseon dynasties (918-1910), reflected meritocracy in theory, in that the candidates who show the highest ability in the exam would become ranking officials. The person with the highest rank received a special function as a reward. Yet, the system was not well-functioning due to factionalism and corruption. Furthermore, it is necessary to note that learning Confucianism was not considered as a purely academic curriculum but also as a refinement to reach moral integrity, while the passion we see in the present Korean society is geared towards success. Chang argues what should ideally be meritocracy becomes an oligarchic structure with privileges given to a specific group of people and thus embeds kleptocracy. She defines present Korean society as a closed cartel, based on strong networks among a small number of conglomerates, mainstream press, lawyers, real-estate investors and graduates of top three universities, and this cartel governs almost all parts of the society. (Chang 2014)

Can experiences be repeated?

Education surely has been a climbing ladder for a respectable and well-off future. Koreans have witnessed or experienced throughout last decades that thorough education or a certificate from prestigious universities provided economic returns and upward social mobility. Sorenson confirmed that the elites in Korea were not about class differences, but more about education. (Sorenson 1994)

However, such phenomenon has weakened as capital has been accumulating and inherited in the society. There is a stronger correlation now between the education level and the economic status of the parents and their children’s academic achievements. At the same time, education has less returns in the job market implying that other conditions including overseas experience or parents’ financial support (to wait for a better job) pay off. (Choi 2007) Koreans took it for granted at least for the last three generations that the next generation would be better off financially and have better education. People would continue to put monetary investment and huge efforts on education to fulfil the expectation about a better future, until they reach a bitter realisation that the society cannot sustain a skyrocketing growth forever and education does not guarantee a better position in the society. This realisation is yet to be fully embraced by Koreans, especially by older generations. The swift and abrupt social revolutions are forcing Korean citizens to refute their thoughts and behaviours about education, which are constructed and confirmed by experiences of high returns on education.

Reflections on the objectives and meanings of education could be a tedious exercise with little outcome to those who are accustomed to dramatic changes, yet it is the most imminent task in Korea. Instead of being content with the number of students enrolled or the average attainment of students, the significance of deliberation needs to be accepted and shared among the members of society. The real challenge is how to maintain the dynamism and dedication which enabled Korea to enjoy the economic and cultural success it now enjoys, while mitigating the excessive passions and expectations put on education in the country.

Anna Chung

Anna Chung ( has recently obtained a double PhD in Political Science from Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) in Belgium and LUISS in Italy.  She was a recipient of Erasmus-Mundus full scholarship of the European Union. Prior to joining the PhD programme, she had worked in Joongang Ilbo (Central Daily News, Manager of Strategy Team), the Delegation of the European Commission to Korea (Economist) and Allianz Asia Pacific (Asian Management Trainee).

[1] Korea in this article refers to the Republic of Korea (South Korea).


[3] A seodang was a traditional and private form of education facility during the agricultural Joseon Dynasty until 19th century. It was a village school where Chinese characters and Confucius classics were taught to children. Only boys from yangban class (the highest class only below royalty) could go, but the door was open to other classes towards the end of the Joseon Dynasty. More prosperous families sometimes opened their own seodangs for their children, which sometimes included girls.

[4] Interactions with the great powers of the time had increased. Around the time the treaties were signed with US (1882), Germany (1883), Russia (1884) and France (1886), there was a domestic transformation of the Gapsin Coup (4 Dec. 1884). The Gapsin Coup was a part of attempts to reform the traditional and corrupt government and to abolish status system, though the coup itself failed.

[5] Yonsei University, Ewha Women’s University, Pai Chai Universities, for instances, were founded by missionaries, and still are prominent private universities. Women’s schools established or supported by missionaries gave opportunities for girls to study in public space, whereas the education had been quite limited previously in accordance with the Confucius tradition that women reside inside and allow men to be responsible for outside work.


[7] According to the Bank of Korea, Gross Domestic Product (GDP, current prices, won) had increased on average 26.30% per annum during 1960’s and 30.85% during 1970’s, thus making the size of economy 158 times larger during those 20 years. (The Economic Statistical System, the Bank of Korea)

[8] In 1970, an average salary of office workers in manufacturing industry, for example, was more than 4 times higher than that of employees working on the production. (Ministry of Labor, 1970)

[9] Korea’s GDP per capita was the 119th out of 120 countries registered in the United Nations according to Statistics Korea.

[10] According to OECD, this figure (private spending on education) “includes all direct expenditure on educational institutions, net of public subsidies, also excluding expenditure outside educational institutions such as textbooks purchased by families, private tutoring for students and student living costs.”

[11] DongA Daily, 7 June, <Giroki Appa> 34% Remits 3-5 Million Monthly on Average.


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