By John Power
Koreans are arguably second to none in their zeal for education.
Some 82 percent of Korean high school graduates go on to third level education, more than in any other OECD country. There are more than 400 colleges and universities and 70,000 second-level private academies called “hagwon” around the country, while Korean high school students consistently outperform their international peers in reading and math. But with youth unemployment a prominent policy issue and students facing sometimes unbearable pressure to perform, many are questioning the nation’s feverish devotion to academic study.
“It is undesirable for there to be so many university graduates,” Ryu Ji-seong of the Samsung Economic Research Institute told Voice. “Currently, only 60 percent of university graduates are employed. There are also few prospects for drastic increases in jobs for university graduates.”
While far lower than in most advanced countries, Korea’s youth unemployment rate, at 6.7 percent, is more than double that of the general population. To tackle this and encourage manual trade-minded students away from university, the government opened 21 Meister schools in 2010, focusing on technical skills in areas such as shipbuilding and semiconductors. Based on the German model of vocational high schools, the government sees the schools as an antidote to a national obsession with admission to the top three “SKY” universities: Korea University, Seoul National University and Yonsei University.
“I think Meister schools are a good idea,” said Ryu. “Businesses need specialized technical skills, and Meister schools can give businesses access to skilled high school graduates.”
But he also believes employers have a big role to play.
“Businesses should be proactive in recruiting high school graduates, and provide graduates with opportunities for career growth and development in line with their abilities and achievements. Secondary schools need to provide students with career guidance and education in line with their aptitude and abilities. Both should play their role to realize a society that values actual talent rather than just degrees.”
But not all sources believe such a high university attendance rate is a negative. Completing tertiary education significantly increases your chances of obtaining a job: In 2009, the average employment rate of third-level graduates in the OECD was 83.6 percent, but just 74.2 percent for those who had not gone beyond high school.
While noting that it was difficult “to say whether this is a plus or negative for graduates since there are many variables,” Chung Ji-eun of the OECD’s education directorate says the signs are that tertiary education has had a positive impact on Korea’s employment rate.
“In 2009, our most recent data, 76.1 percent of tertiary graduates were employed, 69.6 percent were with upper secondary degree and 65.3 percent were with below upper secondary degree,” Chung said.
She added that economic climate is more likely to negatively affect the labor market than any particular university attendance rate, but that education could cushion the blow of economic shocks.
“I think the labor market is rather more dependent on its economic climate. For example, as you might well be aware, Korea experienced financial crisis from 1997. This effect was evidently shown in our data as well, since the employment rate dropped virtually in every education attainment level but this drop was less evident for those with a tertiary education degree.”
But the nation’s educational zeal has faced criticism away from the world of work. According to a report last year, Korean eight graders had the second-poorest social skills of children in 36 countries. The report, released by the Korean Educational Development Institute and the National Youth Policy Institute, laid the blame with a highly regimented education system and excessive hours of study.
“(Students) do not have much time to experience social interaction with their friends and their family and their relatives,” said Hur Tea-kyu, a psychology professor at Korea University.
“That makes people less educated and prepared for social situations and contexts. They only spend most time with very few numbers of close friends and mother and parents, and usually they don’t have sisters or brothers because many families have only one child.”
Hur says social skills are not something that can be taught but that in times past, university had for many been a chance to socialize and form relationships as never before. But those days are gone.
“Getting a job is becoming more difficult and more difficult every year so many university college students are worried about their future as soon as they get in. Ten years, 20 years ago, they had to study hard to get into university. However, after entering university they had a few years to enjoy their life a little bit. Not many students can enjoy their life (now). University is not providing the opportunity to get educated about something they need during their early education.”
For Hur, one of the biggest problems with the education system is its focus on short-term goals.
“They are going live 70 or 80 …And they are thinking about three years after, getting a job and entering university. It is just a small part of their life, it’s not a big part. Actually the big part is not determined yet. We are teaching our children to have only a short-term perspective.”
Others, such as Park Jae-hyun, a research fellow at the Korean Council for University Education, reject any suggestion that Koreans are over-educated, pointing to the role played by education in Korea’s economic and political success.
“It would not be a rational opinion that Koreans are overeducated, because education has a special value and meaning in Korean society. As many people know, education has been a fundamental power for Korea to bring economic as well as political development,” he said.
Park says that this strong focus on education will continue to be vital to the country’s success into the future.
“Human resources have substituted natural resources in Korea with respect to economic growth by providing skill and knowledge which support each industrial area. This trend will be continued in the future as global competition is intense.
“For example, Samsung’s world-class technology such as mobile phones and semiconductors is based on education in the engineering field. Even though a higher university attendance rate is not the only way to ensure the quality of education in Korea, the level of knowledge and culture of Korean people can be enhanced with universal higher education and easy access to colleges.”
Professor of English at Seoul University Lee Byung-min argues that Korea’s educational tradition has acted to breakdown class barriers.
“Of course, education is a strength for youngsters. Why? It is our tradition. Every aspect of our life is closely related to education. Only educated people who have higher degrees or good education or good school graduates with high grades have been always valued in society irrespective of their social ranking,” Park said.
And he emphasizes that the benefits of a college education go far beyond employability.
“Students have opportunities to expand their knowledge and views on issues in their society and the world. They can also learn some skills like cooperation and co-work with others not only in the classroom but also outside of the classroom like other club activities. What I am really emphasizing during college education is that students need to think of some issues in a more critical way by looking at various aspects of that particular phenomenon.”