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In 1960, South Korea was impoverished. Recovering from a brutal war with the Communist North and reliant on aid from the United States, the average salary was around £60 per year. Fifty-two years later, it’s the world’s thirteenth largest economy, a hotbed of manufacturing and technological innovation. One of the cornerstones of this rapid economic development has been education. The government of Park Chung-hee, (a general who seized power in a military coup in 1961 and held it until his death in 1979), was widely condemned for its autocracy, but he did establish free, compulsory schooling in 1961 meaning that, for the first time, the traditional Confucian treasures of literacy and scholarship were available to all young South Koreans. Now, South Korea regularly tops global educational achievement tables, and there are more Koreans at American universities than any other overseas nationals.

Social development

82 per cent of Korean high school graduates enrol in university. In order to gain entry, they need to pass their KSAT examinations (the equivalent of A-Levels), the preparation for which is intense and lengthy. Korean high school students sometimes attend school from 7am until midnight, and on weekends visit private “hagwons” (academies similar to crammers, which are attended all year round in South Korea) to brush up on their English, maths or science. Many parents pay big money to make sure their children secure places at the “top” universities, like Seoul National University and Pohang University of Science and Technology, from which big employers like Samsung, Lotte and Hyundai are said to cherry-pick the best graduates. Parents are often also heavily involved in students’ choice of degree subject – the most popular courses to study are business, management, finance, accounting and, of course, technology.

Once students reach university, courses are mostly four years long. At undergraduate level, South Korean parents usually fund their children for the four years of their course, with those that can’t afford to taking out loans. As the aim of most university courses is explicitly to make students employable, this investment has traditionally been seen as a sound one.

The initial couple of years are often spent developing the social skills many students missed out on gaining during their adolescent years. “We have no free time at high school, so even our parents encourage us to have fun at university”, says Park Myung-seop, a Korean masters student at Goldsmiths, University of London. “The first two years usually involve lots of going out and socialising.” The second half of the degree is usually when the hard work takes place. The nation has a fantastic record of producing talented, hardworking individuals, but the educational methods used to do so are very different to what we’re used to in the UK.

Different folks, different strokes

Amy Lee, an English literature graduate, says: “The aim of going to university in Korea is to get knowledge, whereas in England it’s to explore knowledge.” Conversations with half a dozen UK-based Korean students all run along similar lines. Most describe the approach taken by lecturers in South Korea as “authoritarian” and “lacking dialogue”. Yang Su-yon, an arts administration masters student at Goldsmiths, says of her homeland undergraduate degree: “The professors put a certain kind of idea forward, which you have to agree with. If you don’t agree, you’re wrong. Everything in Korea is about getting exact answers, whereas in Britain, if you argue your point you can’t be wrong, as long as you understand your argument. The focus in Korea is theoretical too. When Koreans graduate, they have lots of knowledge, but no practical experiences. They haven’t broadened their horizons. They graduate only to gain the certification needed to get a job, then many go abroad to get real life experiences in foreign universities.”

Part of the attraction for South Korean students of coming to study in the UK is, perhaps surprisingly, the cost of education. Myung-seop has paid £10,000 to take a one-year Masters in cultural studies at Goldsmiths. In his hometown of Gwangju, the same course lasts two years and costs £3,500 per term, with four terms per year.

On the job

Typically, South Korean undergraduates will start thinking about their career in their third year but, unlike their British counterparts, it’s rare for them to attend open days or do internships. CV building is seen as important, but Korean students tend to spend any spare time they have focusing on augmenting their studies by obtaining practical skills, like getting their driving licence or studying for their Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) qualification, and employers don’t look at which societies students are involved in. “They’re only for fun,” explains Su-yon, who was a member of the drama society and choir when she studied in Seoul. “Employers only care about which university you’re at, what grade you get, and what qualification you have”. Myung-seop recalls a friend who was studying politics, but wanted to be a stockbroker. In his free time, he put himself through the necessary financial exams, while simultaneously achieving top grades on his course. Institutions in the City might be eager to attract graduates from all disciplines with a broad range of skills, but it’s all about qualifications in the Land of the Morning Calm.

The downside of having such a highly educated workforce is finding something for them all to do. As in the UK and America, the graduate employment market has been getting more competitive in South Korea. But whereas only 10 per cent of UK graduates in 2009 were unemployed a year after graduating, the South Korean figure sits at an alarming 42 per cent. In order to limit the future impact of the “graduate glut”, President Lee Myung-bak has encouraged firms to start recruiting students straight out of high school, thereby ensuring they aren’t spending four additional years studying in vain. While it will take time to reverse this unwelcome development, the early signs are good. The banking sector has doubled its non-graduate intake, with other industries creating designated training centres for them. South Korea has shown its resilience and adaptability many times before, and the next generation of graduates would do well to channel their predecessors’ spirit of innovation.   

By

Finbarr Bermingham
Former Assistant Editor

Published

Issue 47

p49

18 January 2012

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