Education in South Korea has been a contentious area that has only gotten worse over the past few decades. Children in Seoul’s Gangnam go to cram schools, even on Christmas. In the controversial capital of hagwon, the smartest fourth graders are cracking high school math, and others are expected to have learned at least two years ahead of their grade in order to pass “level tests” for admission to a hagwon. Parents agree it’s insane, that it’s as if their kids are living the life of high school seniors for 12 years. But they say they’re afraid to be the only ones to stop.
Such unbridled frenzy often breeds crime.
Chosun Ilbo reported Monday that the Education Ministry has requested that police investigate possible corruption involving a question on the Suneung, also known as the College Scholastic Ability Test. A passage on a practice test published in September 2022 by a star lecturer was used in the English section of the annual college entrance exam two months later. The two tests used the exact same excerpt -- save for one additional sentence at the end of the Suneung passage -- taken from the book, “Too Much Information” by Cass R. Sunstein, a Harvard law school professor and author of bestseller “Nudge.” Although the passages were almost the same, the questions asked were different.
Around 100 complaints on this were made in the five days following Suneung in 2022 to the test administrator, the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation, but KICE dismissed it as “a coincidence.” KICE said it goes over all Suneung prep books sold in stores prior to the annual exam, but didn’t check those provided by instructors. The state auditor has also begun scrutinizing why the ministry and KICE didn’t take any action earlier.
The ministry began looking into the issue in July 2023 after receiving information on suspicions that the lecturer in question purchased practice test questions from four high school teachers. Police are currently investigating the five individuals on charges of violating the law on improper solicitation and graft.
While the authorities should get to the bottom of all possible corruption in shadow education, they must also review the root causes of the overheated race starting from as early as kindergarten to get into a good college, which often risks children’s mental and physical health.
One of the reasons students, especially the high-performing ones, obsess over one point in the Suneung and other seemingly small things that count in college admissions is the difference in the quality of education across universities, which is related to how much the universities spend on a pupil on average. Seoul National University invested 58 million won ($44,000) per student in 2022, the highest among Korean universities with over 5,000 pupils enrolled, according to publicly disclosed data compiled by Rep. Lee Eun-joo of the Justice Party. This is 1.5 times the amount Yonsei University (39.94 million won) and Korea University (32 million won) spent per person. The second highest investor per student among national universities was Chonnam National University at 24.1 million won.
Education expert Lee Bohm says that while reducing the income gap among graduates of different universities would be difficult, gradually increasing and leveling the amount universities spend per student would be feasible. Raising all other national universities’ expenditure per pupil to the level of SNU would cost some 7 trillion won, for instance, but this is not impossible considering that the Korean government’s total budget for 2023 was 638.7 trillion won, he says.
Among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, Korea’s spending on upper secondary education per pupil was the second highest at $19,239 in 2020. But Korea ranks among the lowest in expenditure on tertiary educational institutions per pupil at $12,225, just one-third of the $36,172 spent by the US and much less than $29,534 in the UK and $19,676 in Japan. In the OECD, Korea and Greece were the only countries that spent less on tertiary education per pupil than on primary education.
Gradually evening out the quality of education among reputable universities appears to be the only viable way to help alleviate the education-based anxiety in Korea.