View From Korea: Higher Education Without Utopia

Korean classroom
A South Korean classroom two days before university entrance exam. (Photo: Jens-Olaf Walter/Flickr)

I have been in South Korea for a fairly short spell, teaching a few classes and working on my research projects at one of the country’s large public universities. In the year I have spent here, I have come to think that the country’s education system embodies many of the achievements and pitfalls of neoliberal approaches to education. South Korea’s education system has done well in international rankings (1, 2), and it has attracted praise from major proponents of neoliberal education reform at the international level (1, 2).

At the same time, it has also been criticized for, among other issues, the ‘pressure cooker’ environment it has created for students and its emphasis on test-driven rote learning over creativity, critical thinking, and analytical skills (1, 2, 3, 4). Given the zeal with which neoliberal models of education are being implemented by governments around the world (and, particularly, by the British government), it is useful to consider the impact which the stringent employment of such models has already had on students in one of the world’s supposedly most successful education systems.

Throughout my time in South Korea, I have often felt impressed by my students’ intellectual ability and commitment to their academic work. To a newcomer like me, the number of classes they take each semester – five, six, sometimes up to eight – seems astonishing, as does the fact that they often complement this gruelling schedule with extracurricular studies in private academies. When I go to work in my office on weekends, I usually walk past classrooms in which students spend their free time learning and preparing for classes and exams. Such dedication makes for productive and enjoyable classes.

And yet I have come to feel that something is amiss. I first noticed this when I introduced students in some of my classes to the sociological imagination, using C. Wright Mills’s famous example of unemployment. (“When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, …. “ – you know.) This example routinely makes my students wince. Their a reaction is no surprise; given the high rate of graduate unemployment in South Korea, their transition from university into paid full-time employment may well turn out to be a struggle. A recent report in University World News explains:

In South Korea the number of ‘economically inactive’ graduates has passed three million for the first time, according to government figures released on 3 February, up just over 3% from the previous year. South Korea has among the highest university participation rates in the world, at around 80% compared with 15% to 40% for most advanced economies and below 15% for most developing countries in Asia.

A high university participation rate does not seem problematic per se, while more selective access to higher education may have highly problematic implications. Germany’s traditional three-tier school system is a case in point. At the end of grade four, teachers assess students’ academic potential. A limited number are chosen to attend an eight- or nine-year Gymnasium, completion of which will qualify them for higher education. All other students are placed in one of two vocationally focused school types. For years, this system has been criticized for its severe impact on students’ life chances at a very young age, and for the ways in which it reproduces socio-economic inequalities by privileging children from wealthier family backgrounds (1, 2, 3).

In this sense, South Korea’s education system seems far more inclusive.

Its problems, rather, seem to lie in its excessive vocational and economic focus, which emphasises the acquisition of skills for jobs at the expense of Bildung, i.e. the ideal of intellectual cultivation and creativity that shaped academic education in many parts of the world from in the 19th and early 20th century. This vocational focus is a result of, on the one hand, a hypercompetitive labour market that forces students to concentrate all their efforts on finding employment and, on the other hand, conscious policy choices that emphasise economic objectives (1, 2, 3).

One source suggests that there may be a “’lost generation’ of youth” and that South Korea is “glutted with graduates.” Thus, their anticipated entry into a hypercompetitive labor market makes students saturate their schedules with classes and a variety of extracurricular activities that might somehow add something to their professional profile. At the same time, students in South Korea form part of a ‘pressure cooker’ education system (1, 2, 3) whose predominant model of teaching and learning focuses on rote memorisation, in preparation for exams whose results may have an outcome on students’ lives for years to come (1, 2). A 2011 analysis in The Economist thus describes South Korea as a “one-shot society”:

Every year the country comes to a halt on the day of the exams, for it is the most important day in most South Koreans’ lives. The single set of multiple-choice tests that students take that day determines their future. Those who score well can enter one of Korea’s best universities, which has traditionally guaranteed them a job-for-life as a high-flying bureaucrat or desk warrior at a [corporation]. Those who score poorly are doomed to attend a lesser university, or no university at all. They will then have to join a less prestigious firm and, since switching employers is frowned upon, may be stuck there for the rest of their lives. Ticking a few wrong boxes, then, may mean that they are permanently locked out of the upper tier of Korean society.

This economically driven approach to education has consequences. In daily classroom interaction, it tends to turn students into passive consumers of whatever bits of information are necessary to pass the next test. It removes from view the transformative potential of teaching and learning, in terms of students’ intellectual and emotional development and in terms of the formation of critically conscious citizens who are able and committed to participating in the democratic process. Education that, at best, turns students into corporate warriors and, at worst, enables them to survive in the labor market in a marginal position has given up any sort of vision for a better future in a fairer, more equal society. It’s education for a permanent status quo –education without utopia.

In South Korea, this problem has certainly been recognized, and there are now complex public debates about alternative models of education that emphasize creativity and holistic approaches to students’ intellectual development (1, 2). At the international level, however, the lessons from Korea’s harsh experience with economically driven ‘pressure cooker’ education do not seem to have been learned. In the UK, for instance, there has been a relentless push for a higher education system geared towards the production of graduates equipped with economically useful skills, and the language of ‘employability’ has become a ubiquitous part of public life. What impact will this reductive view of education, now firmly sedimented in the public mind and seemingly without alternative, have on future generations of British students?


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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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