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Education underpins Korea’s rapid growth

South Korea’s education system played a pivotal role in its improbable transformation from one of the poorest countries in the world to the fourth-largest economy in Asia.

The country’s series of transformations throughout its history are mirrored in changes witnessed in the education system. In the midst of the country’s rapid development, Koreans sought education as the way to dig their way out of poverty.

South Korea is now famous for having one of the fiercest education fevers in the world. About 67.1 percent of those aged 25-34 have received tertiary education as of this year, the highest rate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

A competitive social atmosphere and overzealous parents with the conviction that a good college diploma is a prerequisite to a good life has led to the mushrooming private tutoring culture here that threatens the integrity of public education.

But in 1948, three years removed from the country’s liberation from Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule, the fledgling South Korean government’s priority in education was to get rid of Japanese influence. Under Japan’s rule, students were prohibited from learning Korean language and history, and instead were taught about values and knowledge promoted by the Japanese government, according to “A Study on 100 Years of Korea’s Modern Education” by the Korean Educational Development Institute.

Korea’s own modern education system was finalized on March 20, 1951, consisting of six years of elementary school, three years each of middle school and high school, and four years of higher education.

In the early stages, the focus was to provide as many educational opportunities as possible. In 1945, there were some 1.67 million students in South Korea, which marked over a 60 percent increase from the year before.

A compulsory education plan, which at the time targeted children aged 6-12, was suggested in 1946 and implemented by 1954.

The rapid increase in students resulted in packed classrooms, forcing schools to conduct their classes in double shifts. The issue of overpopulated classrooms lingered on, and only in 1995 did the average number of elementary school students per class drop below 40 to 36.4.

The higher education sector also grew. The number of colleges more than doubled from 19 in 1956 to 42 three years later, and rose to 86 by 1961. 

Students participate in an abacus class in this 1950s file photo (Photo courtesy of Gyeongsangbuk-do Education Research Institute)
Students participate in an abacus class in this 1950s file photo (Photo courtesy of Gyeongsangbuk-do Education Research Institute)

Then-President Park Chung-hee, who rose to power after a 1961 military coup, retained firm control over the education system during his 16-year rule, particularly over higher education.

Pedagogy that was not in keeping with the administration’s views was quickly banned and their practitioners were reprimanded by the officials, according to Chun Sung-eun, a veteran educator and former principal at Geochang High School and Geochang, South Gyeongsang Province.

Nationalism and patriotism were emphasized, and in 1968, the Education Ministry mandated anticommunist lessons to be conducted for all students for an hour each week. 

Such emphasis was intended to ensure the stability of the Park’s rule, the KEDI report said. The policies conducted during the 1960s and 1970s had also fixated on the system based on control, supervision and the top-down ordering of the authorities, the report added.

But these were also the times when the government set out to abolish the school pecking order. From 1969 to 1971, the government abolished the middle school entrance exam, and banned high schools from conducting their own entrance exams in 1994.

The 1980s and 1990s paved the way for a movement that is still ongoing today ― provincial autonomy of education.

While Park’s assassination in the 1979 was only followed by iron-fisted leader Chun Doo-hwan, the democratization movement that raged on throughout the decade had eventually forced Chun to reinstate direct presidential elections.

Teachers, for their part, also set out to claim their rights. In 1986, the Secondary School Teachers’ Conference of the YMCAs of Korea demanded that teachers should be free from political pressure while education bodies should be given autonomy from the government.

In 1991, legislators passed a law that allowed education autonomy for local education offices.

There are currently 17 education offices in major cities and provinces in Korea that act as the highest education authority in their respective regions, although they are still under the authority of the Education Ministry.

Former President Kim Young-sam initiated the “5.31 Education Reform” in 1995, which stressed education to be more “consumer-based,” and emphasized competition and autonomy.

“The basic idea behind the reform was to induce competition among each schools to produce a quality education service, based on the autonomy,” Ahn Byung-young, who was an education minister for two years during the Kim administration, wrote in his 2015 book.

But he added that the reform had inherent limitations as the push toward autonomy was ironically carried out in an authoritarian, top-down method. The policies were fragmented and not coherent enough to fulfill the general purpose of the reform, and the government failed to provide sufficient incentives for teachers and public officials in the ministry, who were to be the main drivers of the reform.

Among the notable education policies by the following Kim Dae-jung administration was its attempt to overhaul the college admissions process by banning three of its major elements in 1999: ranking high schools, admissions based on financial donations, and schools conducting their own admissions tests for major subjects.

It was introduced in pursuit of equality for students, but was criticized for hampering higher education institutes’ autonomy.

In 2008, the “admissions officer program” was introduced, which encouraged universities to evaluate students on not just exam scores but various other qualities including extracurricular activities.

But with each administration coming up with new plans to revamp the higher education system, new policies only piled more academic pressure onto the students. In addition to the tests and interviews, students were now forced to prepare for other activities as well.

Chun Sung-eun, who headed the presidential committee under former President Roh Moo-hyun that devised the admissions officer program, said this was because the policy was hurriedly pursued. The committee had suggested at least eight years to prepare and implement the system, but the idea was realized almost right away by Roh’s successor Lee Myung-bak.

Throughout history, authorities’ attempts to bring equality and diversity in education have often ended up having the opposite effect.

Foreign language high schools began to pop up in the 1980s as the government pushed to foster students excelling in foreign languages.

In 1992, the government designated them and science high schools the status of “special-purpose high schools,” subsequently granting them the right to hold their own admissions processes. By handpicking their own students, these schools gradually rose to the top of the academic pecking order.

Autonomous private high schools, introduced in 2010 in pursuit of educational diversity, used the relative freedom to increase the percentage of subjects directly related to college admissions in their curriculum.

Since taking the helm last year, Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea under the Park Geun-hye administration has emphasized integration as the next frontier for Korean education.

“Integration (between fields) is the reality for many of today’s jobs, but the schools teach only individual subjects. The goal right now is to establish a curriculum that will connect all technologies to humanities,” he said in a recent interview with local media.

As part of the integrated course, all high school freshmen will have to study science and social studies with a new integrated textbook.

But civic groups like World Without Worries About Private Education said the combined textbook is more difficult than the previous ones, fueling concern that the new policy will put more academic pressure on students.

While experts agree that further change is needed, they say the government needs to sufficiently prepare policies before implementing them.

“The Education Ministry’s plans for improving the high school education are more than sufficient in blind passion, but lack long-term vision,” said Hong Hoo-jo, an education professor at Korea University. He pointed out that the reason the government’s school reform policies failed was because it lacked clear direction, and that reforms in the future would need to pursue diversity in education without discrimination.

By Yoon Min-sik