This education profile describes recent trends in South Korean education and student mobility and provides an overview of the structure of the education system of South Korea. It replaces an earlier version by Hanna Park and Nick Clark.

Introduction: The Priority of Education in the World’s Most Educated Society

By some measures, South Korea—the Republic of Korea—is the most educated country in the world. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 70 percent of 24- to 35-year-olds in the nation of 51.5 million people have completed some form of tertiary education—the highest percentage worldwide and more than 20 percentage points above comparable attainment rates in the United States. Korea also has a top-quality school system when measured by student performance in standardized tests: The country consistently ranks among the best-performing countries in the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

At the tertiary level, Korea’s universities have less of a resounding global reputation; nevertheless the country was ranked 22nd among 50 countries in the 2018 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems by the Universitas 21 network of research universities. The Economist Intelligence Unit, meanwhile, recently ranked Korea 12th out of 35 countries in its “Worldwide Educating for the Future Index,” tied with the United States.

Korea’s high educational attainment levels are but one sign of the country’s singular transformation and meteoric economic rise over the past 70 years. Along with the other Asian “tiger economies” of Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, Korea represents one of the most remarkable economic success stories of the 20th century, envied by many developing countries up to today.

In the 1950s, after the devastating Korean War, Korea was still an impoverished agricultural society and one of the poorest countries in the world. Today, it is the world’s 12th largest economy and the fourth largest in Asia. Seoul—Korea’s capital and main metropolis with nearly 10 million inhabitants—is said to have the highest gross domestic product (GDP) per capita after Tokyo, New York, and Los Angeles. Contemporary Korea is an advanced high-tech nation with one of the highest Internet penetration rates on the globe.

A laser focus on education was an important pillar of this extraordinary economic rise. In the 1980s, Korea’s government began to strategically invest in human capital development, research, and technological innovation. Korean households simultaneously devoted much of their resources to education, thereby fueling a drastic expansion in education participation. Between the early 1980s and the mid-2000s, the country’s tertiary gross enrollment ratio increased fivefold, while the number of students in higher education jumped from 539,000 in 1980 to 3.3 million in 2015, per UNESCO data.

In fact, it’s hard to find another country in the world that places greater emphasis on education than South Korea. Educational attainment in contemporary Korea is of paramount social importance and strongly correlated with social mobility, income levels, and positions of power. Graduates of Korea’s top three universities dominate the country and occupy the majority of high-ranking government posts and management positions in Korea’s powerful business conglomerates (chaebols).

Competition over admission into top universities is consequently extremely fierce, underscoring Korea’s reputation for having one of the most merciless education systems in the world—usually described as “stressful, authoritarian, brutally competitive, and meritocratic.” Consider that the country’s students devote more time to studying than children in any other OECD country, while parents spend large parts of their income on private tutoring in what has been dubbed an “educational arms race.” The country is said to have the largest private tutoring industry in the world.

By some accounts, many Korean children spend 16 hours or more a day at school and in after-class prep schools, called hagwons. A 2014 survey by Korea’s National Youth Policy Institute found that nearly 53 percent of high school students didn’t get enough sleep because they studied at night; 90 percent of respondents said that they had less than two hours of spare time on weekdays.

Observers, thus, have described Korean society as having an “almost cult-like devotion to learning,” with students being “test-aholics” steered by “tutor-aholic” parents. Studying long hours at hagwons has become so ubiquitous and excessive that Korean authorities in the 2000’s deemed it necessary to impose curfews, usually at 10 p.m., and patrol prep schools in areas like Seoul’s Gangnam district, where many of these schools are concentrated—only to drive nighttime cram classes underground behind closed doors.

This extreme competitiveness has created a number of social problems: Suicide, for instance, is the leading cause of death among teens in Korea, which has the highest suicide rate overall in the entire OECD. Student surveys have shown that poor grades and fears of failure are major reasons for suicidal thoughts, while Korea simultaneously has a growing teenage drinking problem.

Social pressures to succeed in the labor market, meanwhile, have given rise to a phenomenon called “employment cosmetics”—one of the driving factors behind Korea’s boom in cosmetic surgery, since job applicants are commonly required to submit an ID photo, and many employers factor physical attractiveness into their hiring decisions. In another sign of competition at any cost, private household debt in Korea is soaring, driven in part by surging expenditures on education and private tutoring.

Social pressures are further amplified by Korea’s relatively high youth unemployment rate, which stood at 11.2 percent in 2016—a record number not seen since the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. Despite all the time, finances, and emotional resources invested in their education, Korean youth find it increasingly difficult to secure desired quality, socially prestigious jobs. The country’s obsession with higher education continues to sustain a “college education inflation,” flooding the Korean labor market with a supply of university graduates that hold degrees of deflated value whose earnings prospects are decreasing.

While a university degree used to be a solid foundation for social success in Korea, observers have noted that many current graduates lack the skills needed for employability in a modern information society, and that the education system is too narrowly focused on university education, while underemphasizing vocational training. Korea’s Confucian-influenced system has also been criticized for relying too much on rote memorization and university entrance prep at the expense of creativity and independent thought.

Notably, and perhaps counterintuitively, the growing unemployment rates among recent university graduates and the increasingly ferocious competition in Korea’s education system exist despite Korea being one of the fastest-aging societies in the world. The country’s fertility rates are in rapid decline, and its college-age population is shrinking.

By 2060, more than 40 percent of the Korean population is expected to be over 65, and the country’s population is projected to shrink by 13 percent to 42.3 million in 2050. This cataclysmic demographic shift is already causing the closure of schools and universities, as well as reductions in university admissions quotas. If this aging trend can’t be reversed, it could lead to severe labor shortages and jeopardize Korea’s prosperity, if not ruin the country. Korean youths will likely find it much easier to find employment, but they will shoulder the heavy burden of supporting the country’s rapidly growing elderly population.

Full report is available at; https://wenr.wes.org/2018/10/education-in-south-korea

Report by – Deepti Mani, Research Associate, WES, and Stefan Trines, Research Editor, WENR

Education in South Korea

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