“Knowledge is power,” British philosopher, author and scientist Francis Bacon told the world in 1597. Over 400 years later, the phrase is still used to emphasize the importance of education.
Few take its significance more seriously than South Koreans, whose immense zeal for education is nearly unparalleled. As of 2013, Korea boasted the highest college completion rate among all members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to an annual survey.
While data show that the percentage of students going to higher education institutes was north of 70 percent, experts are expressing doubts about whether that is a good thing. Korea’s so-called credential inflation is considered one of the key culprits behind major social issues such as the high jobless rate and falling standards of college education.
Credential inflation is the devaluation of educational or academic credentials, stemming largely from greater access to higher education and the intensifying competition for jobs.
“In the labor market, the number of college graduates is more than sufficient but that of high school-only graduates is not high enough. This happens because nearly all young men who could enter the market after receiving vocational training in high school go to college,” said Kwon Dae-bong, an education professor at Korea University and former president of the Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training.
College education, however, does not guarantee a job here, according to a report in April by the Hyundai Research Institute. The report showed that the number of unemployed people, including both job-seekers and discouraged workers, has decreased gradually since the financial crisis in 2008 to stand at 1.57 million in 2013. However, the percentage of college graduates in that group went up for the third straight year.
“Colleges must expand their curriculums to include field experience that will help students to better meet the demands of companies,” said Kim Min-jung, an HRI official in charge of the report. “The ‘mismatch’ between jobs and the qualifications of job applicants is becoming a serious problem, as college graduates’ efforts to find work are confined to large corporations and state institutions.”
She also pointed out that the tendency for students to obtain degrees regardless of their major or other circumstances can cause problems.
The number of new Ph.D. holders came to 12,625 in 2013, up 3.1 percent from the year before, according to the Korean Educational Statistics Service. In 1965, the inaugural year for the state-run service, just 117 had acquired a doctoral degree.
The increase in doctorate degree holders is in stark contrast to the shrinking number of students as a result of the steadily declining birthrate in Korea.
“There is so much disparity in social and financial status of a person according to his or her education background, which is causing the so-called inflation of credentials. One glance at the paycheck of an average high school graduate and an average college graduate is enough to show how serious this is,” said Kwon of Korea University.
The annual salary for an average new employee with a college degree was 23.6 million won ($23,100), while a person fresh out of high school made 20.3 million won a year, according to job information portal Saramin.
Mindful of substantial differences in benefits between college and high school graduates, Koreans tend to come under pressure to get at least a bachelor’s degree. Korean colleges currently take 560,000 new students every year ― nearly 90 percent of all high school graduates.
The quality of education, however, is a different story. In a survey last month, over half of the students at Seoul National University, the country’s most prestigious university, said they were disappointed with the school’s programs.
“With so many colleges and most of them teaching similar subjects, it’s no wonder that we have so much trouble finding a job,” said Lee Jung-min, 27, who was recently hired by a pharmaceutical company. Despite graduating from a top-tier university, she also had to get high TOEIC scores and other professional certifications before finally landing a job.
To tackle the problems sparked by credential inflation, President Park Geun-hye introduced a work-based learning system that allows a student to work at a company and receive work-related education. But it remains to be seen how the policy will help resolve the problem of inflated academic credentials.
“Instead of an education system where all students line up in a single file toward colleges, the government must implement a multitrack system so that students can choose their own career path. The wage disparity must be adjusted; it should be based more on one’s ability than one’s academic credentials,” said Kwon of Korea University.
By Yoon Min-sik (firstname.lastname@example.org