11/21/2022, 14.12
SOUTH KOREA
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South Korean universities in crisis as a record number of graduates produces little social mobility

by Guido Alberto Casanova

In South Korea, 69.3 per cent of people aged between 25 and 34 have a university degree. According to the OECD, the disconnect between training and the labour market is increasing. A highly competitive system obsessing over access to the most prestigious universities feeds a market of extracurricular centres, starting in kindergartens, where parents send their children to enhance their performance.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – South Korea’s long-awaited and dreaded suneung, the national college entrance exam, was held recently.

For about nine hours, more than half a million young South Koreans sit for the exam that will determine in what programme they will be able to enrol.

This is a critical moment in their lives because it will not only determine which university they go to, but also what career opportunities will be open for them after graduation.

Higher education has played a crucial role in South Korea’s economic and social development, so much so that today the country has the highest proportion of graduates in the developed world.

Among those aged 25 to 34 years, 69.3 per cent have a university degree, this according to OECD data.

Yet, a closer look shows that South Korea’s education system is fraught with problems. Above all, because it is slowly losing its role in building the country's human capital.

According to the OECD, South Korea has the worst performance in terms of improving labour productivity compared to spending on education.

The data also reveal a clear disconnect between a university education and the job market, since half of South Korean graduates end up working in fields that have little to do with their training.

South Korean universities are a discriminating factor in building South Korea’s social pyramid and access to certain prestigious universities is closely linked to a higher socio-economic status.

Students’ attention is monopolised by some large and prestigious universities, which are considered a "golden ticket" to professional fulfilment.

In fact, more and more students, even among those leaving vocational and technical schools, think that entering university is more desirable than going to work. The university system, however, is anything but a path of social mobility.

As recently observed by a South Korean lawmaker, this year more than 10 per cent of freshmen at Seoul National University (the top rated in the country) come from the two most affluent districts of the capital, far disproportionately to the country’s  population.

Over the years, the obsession with education has led to the development of a parallel sector that today is worth US$ 16.8 billion: hagwon.

For-profit private institutes come with prohibitive fees (teaching English to a kindergarten child can cost up to US$ 24,500) – parents enrol their children in afternoon classes to better prepare for college entrance exams.

In 2001 suneung was revised to introduce extracurricular activities into the evaluation, and since then, the number of "fake geniuses" increased.

According to one study, over the past 20 years, as many as 980 South Korean high school students have published articles in academic and scientific journals.

Many of them wrote on subjects such as medicine or computer engineering that are not normally part of the educational offer at South Korean schools. Yet, after university, about 70 per cent of these students have not published anything.

The system is such that children of the richest and most influential families basically have a better chance of getting into South Korea’s best universities.

It is therefore not surprising that over the years, while university education became more and more accessible, social mobility declined.

Photo: Flickr/Jens-Olaf Walter

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