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The Best in the World, For Better or Worse

South Korea scored high on the OECD PISA ranking, but Jean-Frédéric Légaré-Tremblay finds its students are paying a steep price for success.

By: /
5 December, 2013
By: Jean-Frédéric Légaré-Tremblay
Freelance journalist

Once again, South Korean students have scored high on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranking, coming in second.  While descending slightly from their first place position of 2009 – the Taiwanese earned the top slot this year –  South Korea’s hard-working students have nevertheless demonstrated that they remain highly competitive.

The consistently strong performance of South Korean students has been noticed and applauded around the world. Many Western leaders longing to see their pupils emerge from their torpor see the South Korean education model as desirable to emulate. In the United States, President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have repeatedly called on legislators to take inspiration from South Korea and lengthen the school year and the time spent each day in class, among other schedule, teaching, and curriculum-related changes.

Even in Québec, during the last electoral campaign in 2012, the leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec, François Legault, lauded Asian students in general for their relentless pursuit of excellence in their studies and regretted that young Québécois often aim lazily for the dolce vita… (It should be noted, however, that Québécois students ranked 1st in maths in North America and 5th in the world in the last PISA ranking, only surpassed by students in Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea.)

Last spring I spent three weeks in South Korea studying its education system, thanks to a media grant from the Asia Pacific Foundation. During my visit, I was confronted by a highly critical narrative of the South Korean education system. It quickly became obvious to me that many South Koreans students are deeply unsatisfied with how they are being taught.

Breaking record after record

There is no doubting that young South Korean students are ambitious. Besides being regularly on top of the PISA ranking, they spend on average 50 hours per week with their noses buried in their textbooks. This is 16 hours more than the average among the top 34 OECD countries. And this is only an average: the number climbs up steadily during high school, as students get closer to the crucial and uber stressful university entry exam. Education is so important that 98% of South Koreans aged between 25 and 34 have a high school diploma — the highest rate in the world — and two thirds of them also have a university diploma — the highest rate in the OECD.

On paper, these numbers are indeed enviable. But other record-high numbers reveal the high price of South Korea’s climb to the top.

According to the 2012 PISA study, only 60% of South Korean 15-years old claim to be happy in high school — the lowest percentage in the world. They also get a modest 7 hours and 30 minutes of sleep on average every night, while young Brits and Americans enjoy one hour more tucked between their sheets. And during high school, the time spent in the bed drops to a meager 6 hours and 30 minutes. No wonder 96% of them say that they feel sleep-deprived. It is no surprise either to hear teachers complain that many of their students fall asleep with their heads on their desks during class. Many teachers, along with directors and administrators, agree that students lack sufficient time to move, play and socialize.

On an even sadder note, as of 2011 suicide has become the main cause of mortality among South Korean youth. It is hard to prove that the oppressive study regimen is driving this trend however many South Koreans are prone to draw a link between their burdensome school system and the rising number of depressed students. 

The critics of the system are not just ordinary citizens– they also include members from some of the highest offices in the country. In his inaugural speech in 2008, former president Lee Myung-bak vilified it, saying, “One-size-fits-all, government-led uniform curriculums and an education system that is locked only onto the college-entrance examination are not acceptable.” During the last presidential campaign, in 2012, then-candidate and later president Park Geun-hye promised to reform the education system in order to take some weight off students’ overburdened shoulders.

The almighty suneung

But breaking the vicious circle of competition for the best grades among students is a difficult and long endeavour that has not yet borne fruit. A high-ranking official at the Ministry of Education in Seoul began an interview by admitting that close to nothing would change unless the university entry exam formula is modified. This exam – the suneung – that every student across the nation must pass to go to university – which means basically almost everyone – is the keystone of the whole education system. The grades that one gets at the end of this daylong exam determine whether a student goes on to a top-tier, second-tier or third-tier university. Hence the competition to be on top from the first day of school onward.

The importance of the suneung in the life of a South Korean cannot be overstated. Every year, the country comes to a halt during that day. Most of the people don’t go to work, students who are late to the exam are chauffeured by the police and the armed forces block the entire airspace to every flight during the oral comprehension segment of the exam.

The government is trying to change the exam formula by diversifying the sources of evaluation. Letters of intention and volunteering experiences are or will soon also be taken into account. Seoul is also trying to divert students from the university to the vocational schools, as the country suffers from a shortage of plumbers, machinery operators and many other trades.  

The long “shadow” of education

The state has also long been trying to curb the omnipresence of the hagwons, even though they appear to be by-products of the highly competitive environment rather than the cause. These for-profit private institutes or cram schools have become a crucial component of the South Korean education system despite the government’s opposition, who went as far as banning them in the early 80s – until a court ruling reversed that decree in the 90s, making them legal again.

After a regular day at the public school, between 75 and 95% of South Korean students race to one of the 100, 000 hagwons or so in the country to revise and get ahead in maths, sciences and English; all subjects that are crucial to perform well on in the university entry exam. Young South Koreans attend hagwons as early as elementary school or even preschool and often stay very late at night. The closer they get to the suneung, the later they study. In trying to avoid excesses, the government even put a curfew in place a few years ago. In Seoul, it is forbidden for hagwons to keep their doors open after 10:00. But some hagwons developed some tricks to skirt around the curfew and keep tutoring until late in the night at the express request of parents particularly anxious to have their kids outperform the competition.

This “shadow education” system has become an industry that generates about 2% of the country’s GDP. Parents must spend 2600$ a year on average to send their kids to a hagwon and a typical family in Seoul will allocate 16% of its income for that purpose. As a consequence, South Korean parents are those who pay the highest price in the world for the education of their children. It is no small irony that this is happening in a country that has made public education mostly free for everybody.

From national priority to national obsession

Education has always been a priority in South Korea. It is a central part of the country’s culture and history. One of the main tenants of the Confucian culture which is deeply entrenched in the country is the constant betterment of oneself through education. The tradition of the uniform exam is centuries old. During the Chosun dynasty in the 14th century, it was already mandatory for every aspiring servant of the state to pass such an exams.

More recently, education has been a major reason why South Korea has risen from the ashes of the Korean War through the decades to become the 15th largest world economy and the home of powerful multinationals such as Samsung, LG, and Hyundai. This tour de force has been nicknamed “The miracle on the Han River”. Having no natural resources to tap to prop up the renaissance of the country, the government decided to tap the brains of its people. Education was to be the means of driving the country forward and a vehicle of social mobility accessible to every South Korean citizen.

But somewhere along the way, education became more than a national priority or a chance at a better life; it became an obsession. South Korea has proven once more that it is an educational super power. For better… and worse.


This essay was written under the auspices of the Centre d’études et de recherches internationales de l’Université de Montréal (CÉRIUM), of which the author is a fellow.

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