Friday 17 February 2012

Reforming S. Korea's education system

By Bruce Gale, The Straits Times, 15 Feb 2012

'THE social mobility (of the disadvantaged) has been blocked,' thundered the Korea Times in a hard-hitting editorial last month. The target of the newspaper's ire was yet another scandal involving admissions procedures for South Korean colleges and universities.

Reports said that hundreds of unqualified students from well-to-do backgrounds had entered local universities by misusing a special admissions system aimed at helping the children of farmers, fishermen and other low-income earners.

But it is not just the poor who lose out in South Korea's education system. Even those who get a place are short-changed as impressive international rankings contrast starkly with the realities facing those whom the system is intended to benefit. The growing incongruity could eventually have important implications for the country's future political and economic stability.

On paper, South Koreans enjoy one of the best education systems in the world. Every three years, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) runs a series of tests on 15-year-olds in its 34-member states called the Programme for International Student Assessment. South Korean students regularly score among the best in reading and mathematics. They also perform creditably in science.

South Korean tertiary institutions are also well-regarded. Five local universities ranked among the top 200 in the world in 2010, according to the London-based Quacquarelli Symonds education consultancy. This was up from just two in 2007.

The general population also appears to have benefited. In 1980, a mere 39.2 per cent of high school graduates went to college. But the percentage jumped to 75.8 per cent in 1995, and reached its current level of over 80 per cent in the early 2000s.

Such statistics, however, can be misleading. One reason South Korean 15-year-olds do so well in OECD tests is because children of all ages spend long hours attending hagwons (cram schools) in addition to their normal school.

Students learn by rote. A survey of South Korean schoolchildren published by the Chosun Ilbo newspaper in December last year revealed that 42 per cent never asked questions in class. Also, 45 per cent said they had been scolded or ignored by teachers for asking questions or for giving opinions that differed from those of their instructors. When asked how many of their daily lessons involved discussions and presentations, 67 per cent said none.

A degree from a prestigious university is widely prized as a ticket to the good life. But the position of the nation's tertiary institutions in international rankings can be illusory. In the early 2000s, local universities began to hire foreign professors in large numbers in an attempt to improve their global rankings.

But while university rankings rose, observers noted that the quality of instruction did not. Writing in the Korea Times in April last year, Professor Robert J. Fouser, a professor at the Department of Korean Language Education at Seoul National University, argued that the accompanying increase in the use of English as the language of instruction was unwise.

'The most common complaint,' he wrote, 'is that the use of English lowers the level of the content,' adding that 'there is little interaction among students and between students and professors'. Professors have to simplify things excessively, he added, while students' limited grasp of English hinders interaction.

Students are also badly served in other ways. South Korean universities have an average of 32.7 students per professor, more than double the OECD average of 15.8. According to an analysis of library statistics by the Korea Education and Research Information Service, local universities also rank poorly when it comes to the number of library books per student and the number of students per library seat. Independent research by undergraduates, it seems, is not encouraged.

Meanwhile, the economy suffers as companies complain about a shortage of young workers with professional skills. Reports say that even engineering graduates have to be retrained. A recent survey revealed that only 51 per cent of last year's college graduates found steady work. Inevitably, this will have political implications as a class of highly educated but poorly paid malcontents emerges.

In an attempt to shore up support in a key election year, South Korea's ruling conservative party recently promised more school and welfare benefits for the poor.

But it will take more than that to fix the nation's education system. Fundamental changes are needed in both content and philosophy if the system is to serve the country's needs.

The finances of educational institutions may also need to be carefully examined. Despite the substandard facilities available to students, OECD statistics show that tuition fees in South Korea are the second highest among member nations after the United States. South Korea also ranks second among OECD member nations in terms of the ratio of public education spending to gross domestic product.

It is time South Koreans get what they pay for.

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