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Studying, Gangnam style

You and your family gather around your computer as you type in your login information, holding your breath as the page loads. You scroll down. As your score appears on the screen, you might break down crying, or jump up to hug your parents with a whoop of joy. These are the results of your College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT, also known as Sooneung) – the key to your future success, or the door swinging shut on your career potential forever. The despair of checking your results and seeing a score too low to grant you admission to one of the three top national universities – Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University – is difficult to analogize for most Western students. For them, test results and academic career trajectories seem substantially more flexible.

In South Korea, the university admissions test is held only once a year. On the second Thursday of every November, the country shudders with a sense of momentous gravity as high school seniors across the nation simultaneously sit down to write the exam in a nine-hour marathon session. To facilitate the test, daily life comes to a respectful standstill: workplaces open an hour later to reduce morning traffic, live-fire training is postponed at military bases, airport flights are delayed during the hour of the exam’s speaking portion, stock markets open late, and noise restrictions near test centres is enforced. The sense of importance of this life-deciding exam is felt at all levels of society.

U2 McGill Management student Jennifer Seo described her own education in South Korea. “I started going to afterschool classes for English in Grade 1, and it was about six hours a week. Then in Grade 5 I started taking math classes which was another six hours,” for a total of 12 hours per week on top of her regular schooldays. When she got into middle school, the private tutoring got more intensive. “I can’t even remember how much time it was,” she said. In fact, her family moved to the Daechi-dong area of Seoul’s affluent Gangnam district because it is renowned for its cram schools.

The pressure cooker nature of test preparation, and the life-or-death emphasis on the importance of academics and standardized testing has led to mental stress and depression amongst the nation’s youth. Suicide is the leading cause of death for people under forty in South Korea, and every year suicides spike in November around the time of the CSAT and in December when results come out. According to two surveys, by the Korea Teachers and Educational Workers Union and the Korea Youth Counseling Institute, almost half of Korean students have had thoughts of suicide.

“The people who would commit suicide might be the top ten in their school, but still they think that if they don’t get good grades on the exam they won’t succeed later in life,” Seo recalled. On the topic of whether counseling or mental health services are available to students suffering under the pressure of CSAT preparation, Seo explained, “Homeroom teachers are supposedly responsible for taking care of them, but you don’t really talk about your feelings to your teachers ­– not even your parents, because you’re scared you’ll make them worry. You mostly talk among your friends.”

These high-stress conditions have led to the rise of “wild goose fathers” – a phenomenon where mother and child move overseas to receive quality education abroad or to escape the Korean system altogether, while the father remains at home earning the money required to finance the arrangement. Mothers, on the other hand, have become educational agents in this society, and female graduates of prestigious universities are sought-after marriage prospects for their advantage in helping their children obtain the same high scores that got their mothers into university. Getting into one of the top three universities isn’t simply the path to respectable employment, but also confers the benefits of social prestige and invaluable social and job connections among those from your alma mater.

“A lot of people, if they had enough money to go abroad to study, most of them would go for it,” Seo affirmed. “A lot of people know that [the system]’s problematic,” Seo said.

Seo explained that her parents decided to emigrate to Canada when she was in Grade 10, because “once you go into high school, it gets more intense…we thought we could spend more quality time in Canada than Korea…In Korea, there’s a system that’s set for you and you’re forced to study what they offer, there’s no choice and no time for other activities.”

Called by many the “one-shot society,” South Korea’s education system revolves around the CSAT as the apogee of academic achievement and subsequent professional success. And for a country whose obsession with education largely drove the nearly 40,000% increase in the country’s GDP since the 1962, the country revolves around the education system in turn. Ninety-three per cent of South Korean students graduate from high school on schedule, while in the United States that figure is closer to 75 per cent, and, according to OECD data, a high school teacher in South Korea makes 25 per cent more than an American teacher of comparable experience on average.

As early as elementary school, Korean students are prepared for the CSAT. According to surveys, parents in Seoul spend an average of 16 per cent of their income on private tutoring for their children, whose academic schedules often last from 8am to 10pm or even later, spending hours after school in private cram schools, called hagwons. For those without easy access to tutoring centres or those who can’t afford face-to-face instruction, online tutoring is a common alternative. In 2009, South Koreans spent $19 billion on private education, which is approximately half of the public expenditure on public education; in the United States, the private education industry is valued at under $7 billion, while public education expenditures total around $68 billion.

This leads to students being less invested in their regular education because “a lot of students know ahead of what school teaches,” Seo explained. “It’s redundant. They learn the stuff at hagwons and they come to school, and they’re already tired so they sleep in classes.”

The private education industry has risen, in part, out of a perceived incompetence on the part of public school education; in 2004, a survey reported that South Korean classes in middle schools averaged 37.1 students, compared to the OECD average of 23.7. In 2010, 74 per cent of South Korean students received some manner of private instruction after school.

Parents who can afford private tutoring are usually those with higher educational achievement and, unsurprisingly, greater incomes. A study by Ji-Ha Kim at Yonsei University found that, in fact, the quality of public schools has a much smaller impact on parents’ decision to pay for private tutoring when compared to the effect of their perception of their peers’ behaviour. This means that South Korean parents become increasingly more likely to send their children to hagwons if they see other families doing the same – that is, they worry most about their child falling behind the perceived competition if they don’t receive additional hours of instruction.

The cost is enormous – taking classes at hagwons can cost up to $1,000 USD per month for each subject, which is a considerable sum considering the average South Korean household income is around $42,000. In 2003, a survey by the Korean Education Development Institute found that 84 per cent of parents found their household spending on private tutoring to be a financial burden.

 The hagwon system reproduces social inequality by ensuring that those who can afford private tutoring go on to admission in the prestigious universities which lead to higher return in the labor market and greater social mobility, while those of limited socioeconomic means are disadvantaged when it comes to competing in the CSAT against students who receive hours of daily additional instruction through hagwons and online lessons. Participation in private tutoring is correlated with living in an urban centre, parents’ education, income, and socioeconomic class. According to Seo, most students who get into the top three universities are from Seoul’s wealthy Gangnam district. “If you are richer, you have more opportunities because it takes a lot of money for [private tutoring].”

Government reforms to the unpopular educational system in South Korea have been attempted for the past four decades, with hagwons even being banned for a time in the 1980s. After his election in 2008, President Lee Myung-bak vowed to pursue educational reform, and in 2009 his government introduced a 10pm curfew for all operating hagwons, organizing raids to break up infringing tutoring centres that continue to work afterhours.

To emulate Western educational systems, which place greater emphasis on creativity, extracurricular development, and vocational training, new policies were instated within the last decade. Admissions officers were assigned to universities in order to evaluate applicants on criteria outside test scores, such as extracurricular involvement and recommendation letters. 120 universities in the country have adopted this new admissions system, and ten per cent of students are admitted to post-secondary institutions for reasons other than their CSAT score.

Additionally, the government has created alternatives to private tutoring, such as broadcasting public lectures by the Education Broadcasting Station. They have also curtailed fees, and fine hagwons that overcharge. However, hagwons are still plentiful, estimated by the Korean government to number up to 100,000. The measures are thus widely considered failures.

The Korean education system, historically a profoundly effective economic stimulator, is in trouble. Its own high standards may be its ironic downfall.