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[Letter to the Editor] Office of education avoids the elephant in the room

Once again, the Korean government is chasing its own tail over an effective (and just) education policy.

It was announced this week that the top 16 universities in Seoul would have to accept at least 40 percent of their students based on regular admissions, i.e. the College Scholastic Ability Test.

The original introduction of the irregular admissions policy, which included assessment of students’ extra-curricular activities (such as award-winning records, club activities and volunteer work) was designed to reduce the burden on parents spending millions of won on private education, namely cram institutes (hogwans) and private tutoring in order to help their children ace the CSAT.

The second reason was to reduce the pressure on students -- Korea has the one of the highest suicide rates among young people in the world. Also entwined in this -- and many other issues in Korea -- was the problem of Korea’s cripplingly low birthrate. In short, families are only having one child primarily due to the costs -- read: education costs -- of raising them.

In a society where the terms “gold spoons” -- those born into privileged backgrounds -- and “dirt spoons” -- the less privileged -- regularly crop up in daily conversations. As a result, a child’s academic success was directly linked to the wealth of the parents (i.e. how much they could spend on the extra tutoring) was seen as one of the prime enemies of social mobility, and so irregular admissions were introduced. But the new system was accompanied by the same old problem, as the wealthy, well-connected parents used their money and connections to enable their children to gather up plum volunteering roles, internships, prizes and so on, padding their resumes to enable entrance to the top universities.

A popular drama “Sky Castle” reflected the problem, but even before the scandal surrounding the former Justice Minister Cho Kuk’s daughter, the line between the drama and reality had long been blurred.

Now we are swinging back to square one, with the CSAT gaining renewed importance and the hagwons of Daechi-dong (Korea’s cram-school central) licking their lips with anticipation. While the wealthy simply shrug their shoulders at the news, the majority of households will be tightening their belts and any thoughts about having a second child banished forever. And this in the week where Korea’s birthrate fell to an all-time low of 0.88.

So what is the answer?

I propose a radical solution. The link between investment in private education and academic success needs to be broken once and for all. Each family should have a spending cap of 200,000 won per month, per child, for all academic private education (sports, art and music etc. are excluded). This could be supervised by a national accounting system (for example Edufine in the Korean kindergartens) with heavy fines imposed on hagwons and private tutors caught breaking the rules.

This would of course cause huge job losses in Korea’s bloated private education sector, but these might be offset by creating an “education police force” to enforce the law and the increase in the birthrate would help offset losses too. Suggesting to reduce jobs in the current economic climate is political kryptonite, but this is for the long term, for the greater good. The economy would benefit as families would have more children, and both would lead happier, less stressful lives.

Draconian? Yes. Unworkable? Possibly. But flip-flopping between policy positions will not have any impact on the underlying elephant in the room -- the perception in Korea that a child’s academic success primarily depends on their parents’ wealth. If something drastic is not done to correct this in the near future, there will be barely any children left to educate.

By James Copeland

Assistant professor at Hongik University