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[Nicolas Moore] Sub-par English education in Korea: Root of the problem

The symptoms of sub-par English education are often discussed in the pages of this paper, but I’ve yet to read an accurate description of the cause. The cause of the lack of quality teachers is simply government interference in the marketplace, and specifically the preposterous restrictions, and poisonous regulations discouraging native English speakers from coming to Korea to teach, produce, and profit.

Seemingly there are people selling English everywhere. However most people have some experience with the great number of “local teachers” (non-native speakers at the hagwon and public school level) who are embarrassingly incompetent, and yet whose employment is protected by a government which is simultaneously, both suicidally pious about not trading with foreigners on a level playing field, and hysterical about the importance of globalization.

The incredible demand for English instruction in Korea is due to the reality that a solely Korean linguistic (and world) perspective is an unavoidably myopic one. I don’t necessarily say this pejoratively, but an individual who speaks only the Korean language lives in a world that is very small. Most consumers of English education (parents) realize this on a subconscious level, and collectively spend millions of dollars trying to give their children the opportunity to have options other than the Korean language (and other than the Korean peninsula). This escape from the “home-nation context” is precisely the value in studying abroad.

In a sense, it is precisely the destruction of the much spouted about (collectivized, racial, nationalistic) “Korean identity” which is the goal of “international” education; students are encouraged to form an individual identity, rather than “adopt” one which is prescribed, and which too often falls along the lowest-common-denominator lines of race and state.

Put simply, a foreign language can be the difference between teaching a student to be an individual with a mind, rather than a tribalist with a flag.

The public schools in Korea are something of an admitted failure, and the exploded market of “supplementary hagwon” for English, or other subjects, are testament to the desperation with which parents search for some shred of adequacy in the education market. But even in the private sector, there is little recourse. Hagwon are catastrophically regulated. One particularly lethal form of regulation is in the form of government enforced “price caps” on supposedly private academies. This is a particularly glaring example of the fact that an enforced “price maximum” is equivalent to a “quality maximum.” I’ve seen firsthand the effects of regulation of hagwon that are legally forbidden from charging a fair, market-price for the value that they (and teachers) offer.

In my experience, this resulted in a glutted schedule of nearly-useless 30-minute classes, designed to protect the academy’s bottom line. This subsequently makes each individual student less valuable to the academy, reducing the incentive ― and ability ― for customer satisfaction.

The process for getting permission to teach legally in Korea, for non-ethnically Korean foreigners is catastrophically difficult. Furthermore, a government that has different rules about “having permission to work and be productive” depending not on your citizenship, but on your bloodline (F4 visa) is racist, and confesses an ideology that operates on the principle “it’s not about what you can do, it’s about what you look like.”

The paperwork alone for an applicant (from the United States) that the government arbitrarily deems “qualified” takes a minimum of 3 months to complete, and literally requires redundant apostils on top of notarizations on top of certifications, on a myriad of documents, which are all designed to (but which cannot) take the place of an employer’s judgment. I’ll spare only one sentence to address the few highly publicized cases of “dirty foreigners” shouted about in Korea: Their crimes are neither anyone else’s responsibility, nor are they any standard by which Korea should conduct business.

Government regulation of education has reduced teacher quality ― significantly ― over the past several years since new regulations were put in place. It is almost unheard of that a foreign teacher will stay for more than a year ― if he/she completes a one year contract at all. Never mind the fact that the main cause of job dissatisfaction among foreign workers is that almost every foreign teacher is forced to take a job blind ― never having visited the school he is to work at, never having met the people he is to work with, and usually being forced to go through an otherwise unnecessary carpetbagging-middleman recruiting agency to explain the red tape. These are the laws which are keeping quality labor away, and which are hurting the students of Korea.

The answer to the problem is easy ― get out of the damn way. Let school owners run their businesses without government interference. Let them set their own tuition prices, don’t make them beholden to insidious “Ministry of Education agents” nitpicking (among other things) about government-approved photocopier policies. Most importantly, let the native speakers in. Let them do business. Let them open schools. Let them make hagwon owners rich. Let foreign teachers get rich, as quality educators undoubtedly would, if allowed to be productive. This is the virtue of capitalism, (and its requisite ethics) which Korea has begun to discover. The alternatives have rarely been so black-and-white, as they are in the tragic demonstration of the North and South.

By Nicolas Moore

Nicolas Moore is an author and businessman who teaches English privately. He lives in Ilsan and can be reached at ― Ed.
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