In the first decades of the South Korean republic, the government tried to develop a strong commitment to education that could help forge the country’s economic and social future — but now they are trying to cool it down.
The percentage of high school graduates going on to higher education has declined since 2008. The rate rose to almost 84% in 2008 from 40% in the early 1990s. South Korea’s national obsession with ever higher levels of education appears to have reached a ceiling, according to The Economist.
Mirim High School for girls in Seoul is one of 35 “Meister” schools introduced by the previous president Lee Myung-bak in an effort to raise the prestige of vocational education. The schools are designed to produce masters of a trade — an economically viable option that is very much in demand in South Korea.
Mirim High School promotes the programming and design of apps for smartphones and tablets. This year, none of the girls graduating from Mirim High School went straight on to a full-time university degree.
In the past, parents pushed children to enter university whatever their aptitude or inclination, Seo Nam-soo, the education minister, said. Some wanted their children to go on to higher education because they never had the chance themselves. But a growing number now believe their children should do what makes them happy, he said.
Higher education costs are also a problem for parents, who spend an extraordinary amount throughout their children’s school years to prepare for the brutally competitive day-long university entrance exam, the suneung. In 2013, education accounted for nearly 12% of consumer spending.
Learning English is also a major problem for South Korean students, causing parents to spend a great deal of money on extra English classes. One professor said that learning the language has become a “collective neurosis”. Some parents move with their children to an English-speaking country.
For South Koreans, a cheaper alternative to learn English is spending a summer at a mock-English village in the country such as the Gyeonggi English Village where only English is spoken.
In addition, spending four years at a university keeps young people out of the job market for four years. After graduation, it takes South Koreans an average of 11 months to find their first job. Once found, the jobs remain better paid and more secure than the positions available to high-school graduates, but the gap is narrowing.
South Korea’s education arms race poses a puzzle. Students spend vast amounts of time and money to move up in the queue for good jobs. But queues are needed only for things that are in short supply. Why should good jobs be rationed? The number of “good” employers should, in principle, expand in line with the scale and skill of the available workforce. So perhaps the preoccupation with educational qualifications reflects problems in the labour market.