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[Robert J. Fouser] New directions for education policy?

For decades, education has sat at the center of political discourse in South Korea. As the country developed, the center of discourse moved from educating the masses for the needs of a growing industrial economy to preparing for university admission and the high social status that it bestowed. Since the 2010s, however, interest in education has cooled somewhat as other issues have come to the fore. Why is this? And what does it mean?

During Park Chung-hee’s long dictatorship from 1961 to 1978, education focused on supplying the booming industrial economy with skilled workers. Universities were for the elite, with which Park had an adversarial relationship. He had no tolerance for resistance and punished pro-democracy movements, many of which were growing underground on university campuses. At the same time, the booming economy needed white-collar managers and technicians. Park responded by supporting science and technology programs in universities. KAIST was founded under his rule in 1971.

Like Park, Chun Doo-hwan was a military man, but, unlike Park, he was disliked by almost everyone. With few fervent supporters, Chun used higher education policy to bolster his popularity. In 1981, he greatly increased the number of students that universities could admit, appealing to the aspirations of a growing middle class. This measure came as the peak of the 1960s baby boom began to graduate from high school. Universities boomed and burgeoning pro-democracy student movements welcomed more support as they made their move against the unpopular president.

Democratization in 1987 brought freedom of the press and greater transparency in government, which coincided with continuing strong economic growth. In the 1990s, reforms to university entrance exams, including the adoption of an English listening test, were top news. The introduction of English education in elementary school was an important national project as tens of thousands of elementary school teachers participated in English teacher development programs. As a required subject on the university entrance exam, changes in English teaching and testing remained at the center of policy debates through the 2000s.

The 1990s also brought an end to restrictions on private tutoring and for-profit private institutes, or “hagwon.” This caused a boom in “private education” ranging from university admission to “English nursery schools.” As a growing middle class continued to pour money into “private education,” the financial burden on families and the inequality that it produced became political issues. President after president has promised to deal with the issue, but the 1990s paradigm remains intact.

By the 2010s, the economy had matured, and the number of children had begun to drop faster. In response, interest slowly shifted to the other end of the age spectrum as a growing population of retirees faced an uncertain economic future. A mature economy, meanwhile, meant that young people increasingly felt that chances to get ahead were limited by a competitive job market and ever-rising real estate prices.

The 2020s may bring renewed interest in education as the world enters a period of rapid change. Education played a critical role in South Korea’s growth and has the potential to do so again as it adjusts to new realities.

South Korea’s low fertility rate and low level of immigration means that the number of children will continue to decline. They will not disappear, however, and immigration could increase. As needs change, institutions and curriculums will need to be updated. The current 6-3-3 structure of schools, and the emphasis on subjects in the curriculum date from the 1950s. Do they still meet today’s needs? What kinds of schools and curriculums does the 21st century need?

Higher education, meanwhile, faces a continued decline in students. For a time, some universities filled many seats will students from overseas, but that will no longer be enough to keep them afloat. To survive, universities will need to develop lifelong programs so that adults can update their work skills and enrich their lives.

Research in South Korean universities is concentrated in a handful of top-level institutions. These institutions produce much of the talent that drives South Korean technological innovation. Programs, such as Brain Korea 21 that have helped raise the quality of research, should be expanded. A sharper division of labor between research universities and teaching universities, including lifelong learning, would create better opportunities for students of all ages.

As in the past, interest in education reform will bubble up from society prompting policy debates. A large population of aging adults in a period of rapid change sets the stage for debates about how best to implement lifelong learning.

Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.