South Korea’s education system
The great decompression
There are perils for a country in having all your children working too hard for one big exam
Oct 26th 2013 |From the print edition
FEW countries have done better than South Korea over the past half-century. Within the span of a single working life, its economy has grown 17-fold, its government has evolved from an austere dictatorship into a rowdy democracy, and its culture, once scarred by censorship, now beguiles the world with its music, soap operas and cinema. Scholars enthuse about the speed and precocity of its “compressed development”.
The only people unimpressed by South Korea’s accomplishments may be South Koreans themselves. As our special report notes, the prosperity they enjoy has not relieved the competitive pressure they endure. To them, the country’s development is compressed in a different way. Its success is confined to a few big employers and industries. The country’s manufacturers are more impressive than its service firms, although these now generate most jobs. And in manufacturing its big, family-owned conglomerates (the chaebol) do far better than their small, hard-pressed suppliers.
Unsurprisingly, ambitious young South Koreans crave employment in the thriving bits of the economy. Medicine, law, finance and government remain popular, but the chaebol now take the cream. Like the civil service and the professions, Samsung, Hyundai and their peers tend to hire people straight from the best universities, with little chance of entry later in life. This creates a double bottleneck in the labour market. There are only a few appealing employers to choose from, and only one realistic chance to join them. So youngsters spend ages padding out their CVs and prepping for exams—especially for the test taken at 18 which determines your university.
This seems like a small thing, and many Western countries would kill to have South Korea’s problem: it is hard to imagine British or American parents fretting that their teenagers work too hard.South Koreacomes at or near the top of most international comparisons of reading, maths and science. But there are costs. A lot of effort goes into costly credentialism, rather than deep learning. The system excludes late-developing talent: blossom at 25, and it’s too late. And in the very long term it means a smaller country. The expense of educating children for the test is one reason why South Korean women give birth to so few of them. With the lowest fertility rate in the OECD rich-country club,South Korea’s greying threatens to be as rapid as its growth.
The indirect cure for education fever
Other education-obsessed countries in Asia face a version of the same problem. In the pastSouth Korea’s government tried to help parents by banning out-of-class tutoring. (The president of Seoul National University had to resign after letting his own child dodge the ban.) But such pedagogical prohibition is illiberal, and was anyway ruled unconstitutional in 2000. The answer lies not in the schools but in the overall economy—and in creating a more open labour market where more firms are interested in hiring people later.
The government should do three things. First, scrap regulations that divide the jobs market into permanent employees, paid more than they are worth, and temporary workers, paid less. Second, it should encourage more firms, including foreign ones, into industries now dominated by the chaebol, expanding the range of alternative employers. And third, it should push the chaebol to expand into services, which they have diplomatically refrained from doing. Retailing, tourism, local transport: all these need some chaebol clout and efficiency.
South Korea has astonished the world with its compressed development. For the benefit of hard-pressed parents and hard-working youths, it needs a bout of decompression.