Rising private education costs and mediocre education top the two main presidential candidates’ agenda for educational reforms.
But experts raise questions about their ability to implement their commitment to drastic changes consistently while addressing likely side effects and resistance from vested interests.
Education is a key battleground for the Saenuri Party’s Park Geun-hye and the Democratic United Party’s Moon Jae-in as they strive to win over middle-class voters, whose top concerns are education and living costs, according to polls.
Education outlay is one of the key factors of household debt. Korea spent some 20.1 trillion won ($18.5 billion) on private education of primary and secondary students last year, according to government data.
The data also shows that the educational gap is widening with the richest 20 percent of households spending about six times more than the poorest 20 percent on private education for their children.
Both Park and Moon seek to curb private education spending and enhance public education, but with differing approaches.
While conservative Park focuses on improving the curriculum and resources of public schools, Moon puts a greater emphasis on reforming the school system itself to level the playing field.
Park pledged to introduce new textbooks to enable students to study without the assistance of private lessons, noting that “textbook reform” is the first step towards the reform of education.
“All test questions for primary and secondary schools, and also the college entrance exam, should be taken from the textbooks, and if the rule is broken, there will be strong disadvantages,” Park said last week when announcing the conservative camp’s education policy.
Meanwhile, her progressive rival Moon said that privileged high schools in the nation have “significantly” contributed to the rising cost of private education.
He plans to cut the number of so-called specialized private high schools, such as foreign language schools, and enhance general public schools.
“The number of foreign language high schools should be reduced as they have lost their initial purpose and have acted merely to help students go to top-class universities,” Moon said earlier.
Moon also promised to ban universities from assessing applicants based on their high school’s rank.
Observers, however, criticize that both candidates lack the will and ideas to lead a systematic change for education reform.
“It’s great that both understand the need for cutting private education, but they still need to take drastic measures that can significantly reduce education-related spending,” said Kim Seung-hyun of the nonprofit organization Private Education Free World.
“Private education has already expanded from middle and elementary schools, but Park made no mention of the excessive competition for prestigious high schools. Although Moon did include high school reform policies, they are vague and lack clarity about how changes will improve the system,” he added.
Park, as part of plans to strengthen public education, also plans to introduce “all-day” service in elementary schools nationwide by expanding after-school classes.
The majority of elementary school classes currently run until 2 p.m., but she promised to offer extracurricular classes outside of regular school hours until 10 p.m.
Experts, however, raised eyebrows that the promise overlooked the costs and lack of teachers qualified to lead such after-school classes.
Moon, on the other hand, took a step further and pledged a ban on private lessons aside from arts and physical education, for all elementary students.
He plans to introduce new legislation for the ban, but critics say that such a compulsory measure may trigger strong resistance from some parents and private educational institutes.
Higher education is more expensive than ever, stretching family finances and producing new graduates who have too much debt and not enough skills.
In particular, the cost of tuition has increased by about 10 percent almost every year since the early 1990s. Now, the average tuition fee for public universities is 4.1 million won, and 7.3 million won for private universities.
The two candidates also share concerns on the soaring university tuition fees. And they both pledged to cut tuition fees by half. However, the term “halved tuition” is used slightly differently between the two.
Moon intends to halve tuition fees for all students of state universities by 2013 and to extend it to private universities by the end of 2017.
Park, on the other hand, plans to increase government support to provide scholarships according to students’ family income, instead of cutting the entire tuition in half for all. She also proposed to lower interest rates on student loans to near zero percent.
Apart from curbing private education, Park pledged to allow middle-school students to spend a semester without tests and an evaluation process to focus on their career planning.
Moon promised to provide free education to children aged between 3 and 5, including reducing the current six-year elementary school period to five years including one year of kindergarten.
He said he will establish a special national committee to introduce the new education reforms, if elected.
In addition, the Dec. 19 presidential election is to be held simultaneously with the by-election for the superintendent of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education.
Although political parties cannot directly be involved in the election of a superintendent, candidates for both president and superintendent are forming coalitions in order to boost their chances of winning in next month’s elections.
Former Education Minister Moon Yong-lin, who served as special adviser to Park, is on the shortlist from the conservative groups, while Lee Soo-ho, former chief of the Korea Teachers and Education Workers’ Union, who publicly endorsed Moon’s policy, is representing progressive groups.Key education pledges
(Two candidates pledge to curb private education costs and enhance public education)Park Geun-hye
▪ Develop new textbooks to enable students to study without the assistance of private lessons
▪ Introduce “all-day” service in elementary schools by expanding after-school classes
▪ Lower interest rates on student loans to near zero percent
▪ Expand physical education curriculum for elementary, middle and high schools
▪ Reduce burden of tuition fees by increasing government support to students from low-income familiesMoon Jae-in
▪ Cut the number of specialized private high schools
▪ Ban universities from assessing applicants based on high school’s ranking
▪ Ban private lessons, except arts and physical education, for all elementary students
▪ Provide free education to children aged between 1-5 years
▪ Halve tuition fees for all students of state universities by 2013
By Oh Kyu-wook (firstname.lastname@example.org