Fighting for Equity in Education

The struggle is long but hope is longer

South Korea's Education Success Has a Dark Side

Monday November 25, 2013

South Korea has been hugely successful in producing high education outcomes. It ranks at the top of international test results. Education has been a driving force behind South Korea’s rapid economic development over the past half century, creating one of the world’s most educated workforces. However, it is finding a dark side to its obsession with education and the Government is trying to cool its “education fever”.

South Korean children spend long hours out of school in cram classes which is affecting their attitude to learning as well as their happiness and development. There is an epidemic of myopia amongst young people that presages major health problems in the future. Expenditure on cram schools has increased household debt and fertility rates have declined as a result. There is a huge over-supply of university graduates, and many cannot find employment at the level of their education qualifications.

Data from the OECD’s Programme for International Assessments (PISA) show that 77% of 15 year-old South Korean students participate in out-of-school hours tutoring in mathematics compared to 10% in Finland, another high achieving country, and 19% in Australia. Thirty per cent of students spend four or more hours per week in after-school classes compared to 2 – 3% in Finland and Australia, and this is in addition to individual homework and study. Many children spend almost as much time in cram schools as they do at school.

Cram schools, called hagwons, are big business in South Korea. Families spend an extraordinary proportion of their income on private tutoring for their children. In August, Forbes magazine reported that parents spend up to 25% of their income on their children’s education. According to the Wall Street Journal, South Korean families spent more than $US17 billion on hagwons in 2012. The South Korean education market is so profitable that it attracts investments from firms like Goldman Sachs, the Carlyle Group and A.I.G.

A recent report in the Financial Times said that families are paying a heavy price for the country’s education fever because the high cost of education is a clear factor in limiting family size and depressing the fertility rate. Expenditure on after-school education has led to high household debt that is constraining domestic consumption and contributing to the low birth rates – at just 1.2 children per woman of childbearing age it is among the lowest in the world. In surveys, families cite financial burdens as the biggest obstacle to having more children and single out education as one of the heaviest components.

The large amount of time spent on studying outside school appears to be having a deadening effect on student engagement with school. The South Korean education minister recently told The Economist that students’ interest in school is very low and their satisfaction rate is low as well. Surveys report high levels of unhappiness amongst school children. Concerns have also been raised about the level of youth suicide in South Korea, which is said to be partly related to education pressure.

Many South Koreans now question the worth and cost of extended education with the number of college graduates in excess of the job market’s demand estimated at about 50,000 a year. The Financial Times report said that South Korea is top of the league table when it comes to producing too many over-educated workers.

South Korea also has an epidemic of myopia. At least 70 per cent of children completing secondary school are short-sighted and need glasses. Around 20 per cent have high myopia which means that they are at markedly increased risk of severe ophthalmic complications later in life, and which can lead to irreversible loss of vision or even blindness. South Korea faces a long-term major health problem as a result. Research shows that the myopia epidemic in South Korea and other East Asian countries is strongly associated with the amount of time children spend indoors studying.

South Korea has been trying to reduce the “craze” for cram schools for some time. In 1980, the government outlawed private out-of-school tutoring, which drove the industry underground. The ban was declared unconstitutional in 2000.

Since then the government has taken other policy initiatives. It imposed a 10pm curfew on cramming schools, but students can dodge the curfew by learning online after hours. An educational broadcasting system has been introduced so students from lower income families have easy access to expert lecturers instead of going to hagwons, but this does little to reduce the hours spent on school work.

The government is still actively trying to reduce the use of private tuition. After-school programs have been introduced in government schools which provide additional classes and extracurricular activities. This appears to have led to some reduction in expenditure on private tuition.

Recently, the government announced the introduction of test-free semesters in all middle schools by 2016 to give students some relief from rote learning. The education minister told The Economist last month that the government is “trying to go beyond the focus on exams and tests” and “nurture students by unleashing their potential and dreams”. He said this is his top priority.

Australia has managed to achieve top results in international tests, although there has been a small decline in scores over the past ten years. It ranks fourth in the world in all-round results. It has done this without resort to cram schools and long hours of study for young children. It has done this without creating an epidemic of myopia. It has done this without the obsession with exams that makes school an ordeal for many East Asian children. We should try and keep it that way.

Trevor Cobbold

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