The scandal surrounding former Justice Minister Cho Kuk and his family has tarnished President Moon Jae-in’s repeated pledge to enhance equality, fairness and justice in South Korean society.
The public is indignant particularly over various privileges and irregularities Cho’s daughter benefited from in gaining admission into a prestigious university and then into medical school. The disgraced ex-minister’s wife, a professor, is accused of faking documents that helped the couple’s daughter make successful applications. She was arrested last week on forgery and other charges.
In a move to alleviate public outrage, Moon recently called for improving the country’s college admission system as part of his campaign to promote social fairness for the latter half of his five-year presidency.
Presiding over a meeting on educational policy Friday, he stressed the need to steer the system in the direction of expanding the use of the regular selection process -- a method based primarily on applicants’ scores on the annual state-administered College Scholastic Ability Test.
Local universities, especially coveted ones in Seoul, have selected more entrants through an alternative screening process: a combined assessment of academic performance and other criteria such as extracurricular activities and out-of-class volunteer work. Cho’s daughter was admitted to a prestigious university in Seoul through this alternative process.
Moon also took issue with a group of elite high schools that critics say have become mere bridges for entering coveted universities, though they are meant to offer tailored education to talented students in specific areas.
Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae later told a press briefing that the ministry would announce specific measures to increase the proportion of regular selections next month. She also said the government would push to transform all 77 of the elite high schools set up for special purposes into ordinary ones in 2025.
Though wrapped in the slogan of a fair society, Moon’s sudden emphasis on the need to change the college admission system seems politically motivated -- a way to turn around the negative public sentiment ahead of next April’s parliamentary elections.
The controversy over the privileges given to the former justice minister’s daughter has strengthened calls for expanding the proportion of regular selections in college admissions. A recent survey showed that 63 percent of respondents preferred regular selection to irregular screening, whereas only 23 percent held the opposite view.
Certainly, it is necessary to consider expanding regular selections to ease growing skepticism about the current admission system. But an abrupt move in this direction would only cause confusion among students and their parents.
A year of public debates ended in August last year with a proposal to keep the proportion of regular selections at 30 percent in future college admissions. If the Education Ministry announces a plan to increase the proportion to more than 40 percent next month as expected, it will perplex high school students preparing for college entrance exams.
True, ministry officials had remained negative about increasing the proportion of regular selections until Moon convened the meeting last week. Furthermore, the measure contradicts Moon’s election pledge to promote selection based on criteria other than academic performance.
A decision to reverse his election pledge and education policy should have been made after thorough discussions among government and ruling party officials, not by what seemed to be an arbitrary judgment by the president. The direction and pace of educational reform should not be swayed by partisan interests.
Educational reform should focus on guaranteeing universities more autonomy in selecting entrants, and on other ways to help them strengthen their competitiveness.
The planned abolition of all elite high schools should also be reconsidered. The move would do little to promote equal educational opportunities and would mean abandoning the task of educating talented students, which is essential for the future of the nation.
At last week’s meeting, Moon noted there was widespread distrust in the current education system. But he was wrong to point the finger at a few coveted universities and a group of elite high schools.
Every education system has its own flaws that can be redressed over time.
What should be done first to correct unfairness in education is to prevent figures with power and wealth from stepping in to obtain special treatment for their children.
Moon described irregularities allegedly committed by Cho and his wife in connection with their daughter’s schooling as “legitimate unfairness.” This hollow rhetoric has only served to increase public anger. He should have offered a serious apology for his choice of justice minister before urging changes to the college admission system.