Every year in late autumn, there is a very special day in Korea. Banks and the stock market either do not open or open later. Flight operations are temporarily suspended. Construction workers and traders try to be as quiet as possible. Millions of Koreans are thinking about the numerous young people who have perhaps the most important test of their lives on this day.
Towards the end of their school years, around 500,000 young Koreans take the so-called "College Scholastic Ability Test" – the Suneung. Universities use the results to decide on admission to their programs. Thus, the test results also have far-reaching effects on the social status of young Koreans in their future lives, ranging from career prospects to partner selection.
According to the famous PISA study, South Korea has a good education system. For example, it ranks 3rd in mathematics, while Germany is only in 22nd place. South Korea is also in the top group in all other subjects. However, taking a closer look at the Suneung and the Korean education system reveals many problems.
The test is largely in multiple-choice format and lasts more than eight hours. It starts with a section on the Korean language, followed by the math and English tests, the latter including the infamous listening task, for which air traffic is temporarily suspended. After lunch, Korean history is the last required subject. After that, participants can choose two additional subjects, such as politics and physics. Finally, a second foreign language is included. Students can choose from languages like German or Arabic.
The problem is that attending a regular public school is usually not enough to achieve a good result. Many children start attending private tutoring (Hagwons) in the evenings and on weekends from the early years of school. Many children spend almost as much time in private tutoring as in the public school system. But this is expensive: On average, private tutoring costs a Korean household about ten percent of their income. According to the Korean Statistics Office, households in the first quarter of this year spent on average more on private tutoring than on food and housing combined.
Private tutoring schools generate a total revenue of approximately $20 billion annually. In this lucrative industry, some private teachers have become celebrities. For example, Cha Kil-Yong, who claims to have earned 6.6 million euros in a year with his online tutoring platform.
The high costs reduce equal opportunities and are a heavy burden for poor families. The test has long been a significant political issue. President Yoon Suk Yeol has promised that students should be able to achieve good test results without private tutoring in the future. This year, he instructed the Ministry of Education to exclude so-called "killer questions," i.e., tasks that go beyond the school curriculum, from the tests. President Yoon also ordered that the test be developed by 500 teachers who had never previously contributed to the Suneung questions. The test is created every year at a secret location under high security measures, and due to its significance, the questions should never be leaked to the public.
Education is important for the family's prestige
On the day of the test, it's not only the students who are tense – the entire family is anxiously awaiting the results. Devout parents pray more fervently during the lead-up to the test and especially on the day of the test for their children to perform well.
In Korea, education, job, and professional status play significant roles. For the family's reputation, parents are immensely concerned that their children perform as well as possible and can study at a prestigious university. The dream of most students is to secure a spot at one of the three prestigious universities: Seoul National University, Korea University, or Yonsei University. These universities accept only the top 1% of students.
The emphasis on education is not coincidental. It has historical, social, and political dimensions. Societal pressure has its roots in Neo-Confucianism, transmitted from China to Korea in the first century AD and playing significant societal and political roles since the establishment of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). Neo-Confucianism attributes great importance to education and knowledge. In contrast to classical Confucianism, which focuses heavily on mythical texts and rituals, Neo-Confucianism values practical knowledge to improve daily life.
In Neo-Confucianism, the view is held that education promotes the common good and should thus be accessible to everyone, regardless of social background. Knowledge is seen as a virtue that unfolds one's full personal and social potential. Simultaneously, the level of education defines one's status within society. Neo-Confucianism promotes a strong collectivist family view. The status of an individual is determined not only by their individual education but also by the education level of their family members. Neo-Confucianism significantly influenced Korea until the Japanese occupation.
Modern dimensions of education are economic and political. Until liberation from Japanese occupation, South Korea was a very poor country with few resources. Therefore, education and the creation of human capital played crucial roles in political plans for the country's economic development.
With the focus on "high-tech" products, for which South Korea is now well-known, this trend intensified. Jobs at the so-called Chaebols are particularly coveted. These globally renowned companies, such as Samsung or LG, dominate their industries and offer the best career prospects. In some sectors, they are the only employers. Chaebols pay their employees significantly better, and their high prestige reflects on their staff.
Intensive learning and intellectual training have resulted in South Korea having one of the most educated and intelligent populations, at least according to IQ tests. In "The Intelligence of Nations" survey by social scientists Richard Lynn and David Becker, South Korea ranks sixth with an average IQ of 102.35.
Some experts criticize that the country suffers from overqualification. Nearly 70% of the Korean workforce holds a university degree – possibly too many. A study by the Bank of Korea found that 30% of Koreans work in jobs for which they are overqualified.
Reform is difficult
The high private education costs may also be a reason for the low birth rate. Due to high expectations for their offspring, many Korean families choose to have only one child, concentrating their energy and money on a single child. Others forgo having children altogether. The birth rate in Korea is only 0.78 children per woman, making it the lowest in the world. In Germany, a woman has an average of around 1.46 children. 2.10 children are needed to maintain a stable population.
The competitive job market and the link between social status and education put immense pressure on young people, reaching its peak with the Suneung. Above all, there is no equality of opportunity. Because of the necessity for private tutoring, students from affluent families have better conditions.
The test and intensive studying also lead to mental health issues for some young people, especially because it occurs at a crucial time in their personal development. For men, this phase of life is interrupted by the 18 to 21 months of mandatory military service.
The country has by far the highest suicide rate among industrialized nations. With 24 cases per 100,000 people, it is almost three times higher than in Germany. Many Koreans lament the tremendous pressure placed on young people.
On the other hand, education and competition have an extremely high value in Korea – they are virtues that have made South Korea prosperous and are deeply rooted in its culture. Consequently, a fundamental reform of the system is challenging.
This was evident again this year. Even if no questions went beyond the official curriculum – as promised by President Yoon – this year's test was likely challenging. In a survey by the South Korean broadcasting station "Educational Broadcasting System," 86% of participants rated the test as extremely difficult or somewhat difficult. The necessity for private tutoring is unlikely to decrease, and the pressure on young Koreans is likely to remain high.
Jannik Krahe is studying political science at the Technical University of Darmstadt and is currently interning at the office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Korea.
- Suh Keong, Kwon; Moonbok, Lee; Dongkwang, Shin 2015: Educational assessment in the Republic of Korea: lights and shadows of high-stake exam-based education system; published by University of Bristol Research
- Jeong-Kyu, Lee 2006: Educational Fever and South Korean Higher Education; published in Revista Electronica de Investigation Educativa Vol. 8, No. 1
- Dawson, Walter 2010: Private tutoring and mass schooling in East Asia: reflections of inequality in Japan, South Korea, and Cambodia; published in Asia Pacific Educational Review Vol. 11
- Weidman, John C. ; Park, Namgi 2000: Higher Education in Korea – Tradition and Adaptation Understanding Korea No. 9: Korean Education - Educational Thought and Content