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Concern rises over unregulated private alternative schools

June 24, 2014 - 21:10 By Yoon Min-sik
For students struggling to adapt to school life, alternative educational facilities have been considered an ideal substitute.

But recent government data on unauthorized alternative schools has hinted at potential problems lurking behind the idealistic slogans of creativity and “education for future global leaders.” They include high tuition, unauthorized curriculum, and the fact that these schools can pretty much operate in any way they see fit.

The Education Ministry on Monday revealed that there are currently some 230 unauthorized alternative schools in the country. The figure far surpasses the number of authorized institutes, which is about 24.

Some of these schools stay true to their role, which is to provide education for students who have refused to or are unable to attend regular schools, such as North Korean defectors and teen single mothers.

Others, however, act as de facto elite schools that charge hefty tuition and are virtually unchecked by authorities. According to the Education Ministry, about 27 percent of the unauthorized alternate schools receive a yearly tuition of more than 10 million won ($9,824) per student, while five charge over 20 million won.

Average yearly tuition for a Korean high school is about 1.8 million won.

These schools are not obliged to comply with the government’s regulations such as limiting the number of English classes and prohibiting students from studying school curriculum beyond their regular academic schedule.

“The Education Ministry does not have the authority to investigate these facilities. It is very difficult to figure out what the students are learning,” a ministry official said. “For years, the ministry has felt the necessity to come up with legal grounds to regulate them, such as the level of education provided there.”

Since these facilities are not registered as public educational institutions, taking precautionary measures for students’ safety is also entirely up to their operators. Some of the institutes are located in shopping districts and authorities cannot designate a school zone with a 30 kph speed limit around them, as they are not formally recognized as schools.

The government is currently pushing for a law that will require these institutions to be registered, which it hopes to be passed by the end of this year.

These measures, however, appear to have come years too late, since many of the unauthorized alternative schools were established in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

A government official said the authorities did not conduct active investigations into the unauthorized educational institutes until last year, thus failing to recognize the magnitude of the issue.

Another problem is that graduating from these institutes is not equivalent to finishing public education. This means a diploma from an unauthorized alternative school is often useless when a student wants to attend Korean university, a fact often equivocated in their brochures and by their PR department.

An official from one of the unauthorized international schools falsely claimed that its diploma will grant “exactly the same certification” as a diploma from a regular high school. Contrary to the claim, only a limited number of higher education institutes recognized its diploma.

By Yoon Min-sik (