Education in South Korea

Education in South Korea
Ministry of Education (South Korea)
National education budget
Budget $11.3 billion[1]
General details
Primary languages Korean
Total 99.9%
Male 99.9%
Female 99.9%
Primary 3.3 million[2]
Secondary 4.0 million
Post secondary 3.6 million
Secondary diploma 85%[3]
Post-secondary diploma 68%[4]

Education in South Korea is provided by both public schools and private schools. Both types of schools receive funding from the government, although the amount that the private schools receive is less than the amount of the state schools.[5]

South Korea is the top-performing OECD country in reading literacy, maths and sciences with the average student scoring 542 and has one of the worlds highest-educated labour forces among OECD countries.[6] The country is well known for its high feverish outlook on education, where its national obsession with education has been called "education fever".[7][8][9] Higher education is an overwhelmingly serious issue in South Korea society, where it is viewed as one of the fundamental cornerstones of South Korean life. Education remains a high priority for South Korean families as success in education holds a cultural status as well as a necessity to improve one's socioeconomic position in South Korean society.[10] Academic success is often a source of pride for families and within South Korean society at large. South Koreans view education as the main propeller of social mobility for themselves and their family as a gateway to the South Korean middle class. Graduating from a top university is the ultimate marker of prestige, high socioeconomic status, promising marriage prospects, and a respectable career path. An average South Korean child's life revolves around education as pressure to succeed academically is deeply ingrained in South Korean children from an early age. Not having a university degree carries a major cultural stigma as those without university degrees face social prejudice and are often looked down upon by others.[11]

In 2015, the country spent 4.7% of its GDP on all levels of education – roughly equal to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average of 4.7% also.[12] A strong investment in education, a militant drive for success as well as the passion for excellence has helped the country rapidly grow its economy over the past 60 years from a war torn wasteland.[13] South Korea’s zeal for education and its students’ desires to get into a prestigious university is one of the highest in the world, as the entrance into a top tier higher educational institution leads to a prestigious, secure and well-paid white collar job with the government, banks, a major South Korean conglomerate such as Samsung, Hyundai or LG Electronics.[14] With incredible pressure on high school students to secure places at the nation’s best universities, its institutional reputation and alumni networks are strong predictors of future career prospects. The top three universities in South Korea, often referred to as "SKY", are Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University.[2][15][16] Intense competition for top grades and academic pressure to be the top student is deeply ingrained in the psyche of South Korean students at a young age.[16] Yet with only so many places at universities and even fewer places at top-tier companies, many young people remain disappointed and are often unwilling to lower their sights. Those who do not choose to go to university can feel as underachievers as not having a university degree carries a major taboo in South Korean society where those who don't hold university degrees are looked down by others as second-class citizens resulting fewer opportunities for employment, improvement of one's socioeconomic position and prospects for marriage.[17]

International reception on the South Korean education system has been divided. It has been praised for various reasons, including its comparatively high test results and its major role in ushering South Korea's economic development creating one of the world’s most educated workforces.[18] South Korea's highly enviable academic performance has gotten British education ministers actively remodeling their own curriculum's and exams to try to emulate Korea's militant drive and passion for excellence and high educational achievement.[19] U.S. President Barack Obama has also praised the country's rigorous school system, where over 80 percent of South Korean high school graduates go on to college. The nation's high university entrance rate has created a highly skilled workforce making South Korea among the most educated countries in the world with the one of the highest percentage of its citizens holding a tertiary education degree.[4] Bachelor's degrees are held by 68 percent of South Koreans aged 25–34, the most in the OECD.[4]

The system's rigid and hierarchical structure has been criticized for stifling creativity and innovation;[20] described as intensely and "brutally" competitive,[21] The system is often blamed for the high suicide rate in the country, particularly the growing rates among those aged 10–19. Various media outlets attribute the nations high suicide rate on the nationwide anxiety around the country's college entrance exams, which determine the trajectory of students entire lives and careers.[22] Former South Korean hagwon teacher Se-Woong Koo wrote that the South Korean education system amounts to child abuse and that it should be "reformed and restructured without delay."[23] The system has also been criticized for producing an oversupply of university graduates creating an overeducated and underemployed labor force; in the first quarter of 2013 alone, nearly 3.3 million South Korean university graduates were jobless, leading many graduates overqualified for jobs requiring less education.[24] Further criticism has been stemmed for causing labor shortages in various skilled labor and vocational occupations, where many of which go unfilled as the negative social stigma associated with vocational careers and not having a university degree continues to remain deep-rooted in South Korean society.[11][25][26][27][28][29][30][31]


Pre-division period

Education has been present throughout the history of Korea ( -1945). Public schools and private schools have been both present. Modern reforms to education began in the late 19th century.

Post-war years

After Gwangbokjeol and the liberation from Japan, the Korean government began to study and discuss for a new philosophy of education. The new educational philosophy was created under the United States Army Military Government in Korea(USAMGIK) with a focus on democratic education. The new system attempted to make education available to all students equally and promote the educational administration to be more self-governing. Specific policies included: re-educating teachers, lowering functional illiteracy by educating adults, restoration of the Korean language for technical terminology, and expansion of various educational institutions.[32]

Following the Korean War, the government of Syngman Rhee reversed many of these reforms after 1948, when only primary schools remained in most cases coeducational and, because of a lack of resources, education was compulsory only up to the sixth grade.

During the years when Rhee and Park Chung Hee were in power, the control of education was gradually taken out of the hands of local school boards and concentrated in a centralized Ministry of Education. In the late 1980s, the ministry was responsible for administration of schools, allocation of resources, setting of enrollment quotas, certification of schools and teachers, curriculum development (including the issuance of textbook guidelines), and other basic policy decisions. Provincial and special city boards of education still existed. Although each board was composed of seven members who were supposed to be selected by popularly elected legislative bodies, this arrangement ceased to function after 1973. Subsequently, school board members were approved by the minister of education.

Most observers agree that South Korea's spectacular progress in modernization and economic growth since the Korean War is largely attributable to the willingness of individuals to invest a large amount of resources in education: the improvement of "human capital." The traditional esteem for the educated man, now extend to scientists, technicians, and others working with specialized knowledge. Highly educated technocrats and economic planners could claim much of the credit for their country's economic successes since the 1960s. Scientific professions were generally regarded as the most prestigious by South Koreans in the 1980s.

Statistics demonstrate the success of South Korea's national education programs. In 1945 the adult literacy rate was estimated at 22 percent; by 1970 adult literacy was 87.6 percent[33] and, by the late 1980s, sources estimated it at around 93 percent.[33] Although only primary school (grades one through six) was compulsory, percentages of age-groups of children and young people enrolled in secondary level schools were equivalent to those found in industrialized countries, including Japan. Approximately 4.8 million students in the eligible age-group were attending primary school in 1985. The percentage of students going on to optional middle school the same year was more than 99 percent. Approximately 34 percent, one of the world's highest rates of secondary-school graduates attended institutions of higher education in 1987, a rate similar to Japan's (about 30 percent) and exceeding Britain's (20 percent).

Government expenditure on education has been generous. In 1975, it was 220 billion won,[33] the equivalent of 2.2 percent of the gross national product, or 13.9 percent of total government expenditure. By 1986, education expenditure had reached 3.76 trillion won, or 4.5 percent of the GNP, and 27.3 percent of government budget allocations.

Student activism

Student activism has a long and honorable history in Korea. Students in Joseon secondary schools often became involved in the intense factional struggles of the scholar-official class. Students played a major role in Korea's independence movement, particularly the March 1, 1919. Students protested against the regimes of Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Observers noted, however, that while student activists in the past generally embraced liberal and democratic values, the new generation of militants in the 1980s were far more radical. Most participants adopted some version of the minjung ideology but was also animated by strong feelings of popular nationalism and xenophobia.

The most militant university students, perhaps about 5 percent of the total enrollment at Seoul National University and comparable figures at other institutions in the capital during the late 1980s, were organized into small circles or cells rarely containing more than fifty members. Police estimated that there were 72 such organizations of varying orientation, having the change of curriculum and education system of South Korea people have been enriched in an imaginary way that makes them to propel in all their studies.

Reforms in the 1980s

Following the assumption of power by General Chun Doo-hwan in 1980, the Ministry of Education implemented a number of reforms designed to make the system more fair and to increase higher education opportunities for the population at large. In a very popular move, the ministry dramatically increased enrollment at large. The number of high school graduates accepted into colleges and universities was increased from almost 403,000 students in 1980 to more than 1.4 million in 1989. This reform decreased, temporarily, the acceptance ratio from one college place for every four applicants in 1980 to one for every three applicants in 1981. In 1980, the number of students attending all kinds of higher educational institutions was almost 600,000; that number grew almost 100 percent to 1,061,403 students by 1983. By 1987, there were 1,340,381 students attending higher educational institutions. By 1987 junior colleges had an enrollment of almost 260,000 students; colleges and universities had an enrollment of almost 990,000 students; other higher education institutions enrolled the balance.

A second reform was the prohibition of private, after-school tutoring. Formerly, private tutors could charge exorbitant rates if they had a good "track record" of getting students into the right schools through intensive coaching, especially in English and in mathematics. This situation gave wealthy families an unfair advantage in the competition. Under the new rules, students receiving tutoring could be suspended from school and their tutors dismissed from their jobs. There was ample evidence in the mid-1980s, however, that the law had simply driven the private tutoring system underground and made the fees more expensive. Some underpaid teachers and cash-starved students at prestigious institutions were willing to run the risk of punishment in order to earn as much as W300,000,000 to W500,000,000 a month. Students and their parents took the risk of being caught, believing that coaching in weak subject areas could give students the edge needed to get into a better university. By the late 1980s, however, the tutorial system seemed largely to have disappeared.

A third reform was much less popular. The ministry established a graduation quota system, in which increased freshman enrollments were counterbalanced by the requirement that each four-year college or university fail the lowest 30 percent of its students; junior colleges were required to fail the lowest 15 percent. These quotas were required no matter how well the lowest 30 or 15 percent of the students did in terms of objective standards. Ostensibly designed to ensure the quality of the increased number of college graduates, the system also served, for a while to discourage students from devoting their time to political movements. Resentment of the quotas was widespread and family counterpressures intense. The government abolished the quotas in 1984.

Social emphasis on education was not without its problems, as it tended to accentuate class differences. In the late 1980s, a college degree was considered necessary for entering the middle class; there were no alternative pathways of social advancement, with the possible exception of a military career, outside higher education. People without a college education, including skilled workers with vocational school backgrounds, often were treated as second-class citizens by their white-collar, college-educated managers, despite the importance of their skills for economic development. Intense competition for places at the most prestigious universities—the sole gateway into elite circles—promoted, like the old Confucian system, a sterile emphasis on rote memorization in order to pass secondary school and college entrance examinations. Particularly after a dramatic expansion of college enrollments in the early 1980s, South Korea faced the problem of what to do about a large number of young people staying in school for a long time, usually at great sacrifice to themselves and their families, and then faced with limited job opportunities because their skills were not marketable.

Great recession

With a slowing economy, a rigid and fast changing job market as a result of the Financial crisis of 2007–08 and the demise of the Industrial Age, many young South Korean high school graduates are now realizing that high entrance examination and test scores for the promise of future career success did not carry the same weight as it once did.[34] In 2013, 43,000 South Koreans in their twenties, and 21,000 in their thirties lost their jobs.[13] According to a 2013 survey conducted by the Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training, nearly four out of every 10 young workers in their 20s and 30s said they were overeducated.[35][36] In 2013, fewer young South Koreans chose go on to university after finishing high school as the unemployment rate for university graduates continues to soar, falling income for college graduates continues to decline and the value of a college degree has now becoming increasingly in doubt.[37] Educational reforms initiated by the South Korean government have become more dynamic and that university is no longer the only guarantee of a career.[38][39] Government measures have also been prompted to encourage young unemployed college graduates to look at other employment possibilities such starting a business or seeking employment opportunities at smaller and medium size businesses.[40] Former President Lee Myung-Bak urged young unemployed job seekers to start looking at other employment possibilities with small and medium-sized businesses beyond large conglomerates.[41][42]

An oversaturated and overqualified labor market has resulted shortages of skilled labor and a lack of qualified vocational employees for small and medium-sized businesses, young South Koreans now realize that a college degree no longer guarantees a job as it once did.[43] With the nation's high university entrance rate, South Korea has produced an overeducated and underemployed labor force with many being unable find employment at the level of their education qualifications. In addition, a subsequent skills surplus has led to an overall decline in labour underutilization in vocational occupations.[44][45][46] Many young unemployed South Korean university graduates are now turning to vocational education such as skilled trade and technical schools and have simply opted out the national college entrance examination test in favor of entering straight into the workforce.[47] With dire employment prospects for university graduates, enthusiasm for tertiary education has also been waning, as less than 72% of South Korean high-school students went on to university in 2012, a sharp drop from a high of 84.6% in 2008. Other factors that attribute to this include demographic change and the current economic climate as well as financial burdens – particularly the cost of education has gone up dramatically with income growth for college graduates stagnating. According to 2012 employment trend research conducted by Statistics Korea reveals that college graduates earnings are lower than those of high school graduates. Many traditional Korean families still continue to believe that a university education is the only route to a good well paying job in spite mounting evidence to the contrary according to a McKinsey report, noting that the net present value of a university education now trails the value of a high school diploma, due to huge private education costs.[48][49][50] The cultural norms of South Korean parents continue to pressure their children to enter university and have even disregarded the phenomenon for declining income of college graduates where the income for university graduates has fallen that below of high school graduates as well as the fact that the unemployment rate for college graduates is higher than that of high-school graduates.[51][2][52] The country has also produced an oversupply of university graduates in South Korea where in the first quarter of 2013 alone, nearly 3.3 million South Korean university graduates were jobless, leading many graduates overqualified for jobs requiring less education.[24][53] Further criticism has been stemmed for causing labor shortages in various skilled labor and vocational occupations, where many of which go unfilled. With labor shortages in many skilled labor and vocational occupations, South Korean small and medium-sized businesses complain that they struggle to find enough skilled workers to fill potential vocational job vacancies.[54] Despite strong criticism and research statistics pointing alternative career options such as vocational school often with good pay and greater employment prospects that rival the income and prospects of many professional jobs requiring a university degree, a number of South Korean parents still continue to pressure their children regardless of their aptitude to enter university rather than go to a vocational school.[2][52] In 2012, 93% of South Korean parents expected their children to attend university, but as societal attitudes change and reforms in the South Korean education system reform underway, more young South Koreans are starting to believe that they have to do what they like and what they enjoy in order to be happy to achieve success.[13][55]

With South Korea's bleak economic and employment prospects for its youth, Prime Minister Park Geun-hye went out internationally to countries such as Germany, Switzerland, and Austria to address South Korea's more glaring employment needs including tackling the country's high youth employment rate and as well as reforming South Korea's education system.[56][57] In early 2015, Park Geun-Hye traveled to Switzerland to study the European apprenticeship system. By summer, the South Korean government mandated that all students in vocational high schools must also have an opportunity to be an apprentice. The government has also mandated an "employment first, university later" policy to encourage vocational graduates to work in industry and put off higher education until later.[58][59] Drawing inspiration from the vocational schools and apprenticeship models of Germany and Switzerland, many Meister schools have been established in South Korea to prepare students for careers earlier. The schools offer to teach students specialized industrial skills and job training to tailor the needs of respective South Korean industries such as automobile and mechanical manufacturing and shipbuilding.[60] Dual apprentice schools have also been introduced where students can work and study at the same time. High school students can go to school for a couple of days a week or a set period of the year or study at school for the rest with a stronger emphasis gaining employment skills than rather going to college. Many young South Koreans are now choosing their jobs tailored to their interests rather than blindly accepting career choices imposed by their parents and choosing jobs outside the conventional classroom.[61][62] With the changing dynamics in the global economy in the 21st century as well as the implementation of vocational education as an alternative to the traditional path of going to university, a good education from a prestigious university no longer guarantees a comfortable life, and one's status in society is no longer necessarily guaranteed by educational background. Since the rise of Meister schools and modern reforms in the South Korean education system, many young South Koreans are now realizing that one doesn't necessarily need a college degree to be successful in the workforce and enter the middle class, but instead the right skills. The establishment of Meister schools now shows South Koreans that there can be multiple pathways to socioeconomic and career success and that vocational school graduates can still be professionally and financially successful in South Korean society.[47] Educational reform modeled from Switzerland and Germany offers career alternatives besides the traditional university route allowing South Koreans to express occupational diversity and as well as redefine what is real achievement in South Korean society is.[63][11][64][65]

School grades

Note: All ages are not in Western years. In parentheses are the Korean Ages; to find the age in the Korean age system add one to the latter ages shown here.

Level/Grade Typical age
Infant School
Nursery School 0-3 (1-4)
Kindergarten 4-6 (5-7)
Primary School
1st Grade 6-7 (7-8)
2nd Grade 7-8 (8-9)
3rd Grade 8-9 (9-10)
4th Grade 9-10 (10-11)
5th Grade 10-11 (11-12)
6th Grade 11-12 (12-13)
Middle School
7th grade 12-13 (13-14)
8th Grade 13-14 (14-15)
9th Grade 14-15 (15-16)
High School
10th Grade 15-16 (16-17)
11th Grade 16-17 (17-18)
12th Grade 17-18 (18-19)
Post-secondary education
Tertiary education (College or University) Ages vary (usually four years,
referred to as Freshman,
Sophomore, Junior and
Senior years)


The number of private kindergartens have increased as a result of more women entering the workforce, growth in the number of nuclear families where a grandparent was often unavailable to take care of children, and the feeling that kindergarten might give children an "edge" in later educational competition. Many students in Korea start kindergarten at the Western age of three and will therefore continue to study in kindergarten for three or four years, before starting their 'formal education' in 'grade one' of primary school. Many private kindergartens offer their classes in English to give students a 'head-start' in the mandatory English education they would receive later in public school. Kindergartens often pay homage to the expectations of parents with impressive courses, graduation ceremonies, complete with diplomas and gowns. Korean kindergartens are expected to start teaching basic maths, reading and writing to children, including education on how to count, add, subtract, and read and write in Korean, and often in English and Chinese. Children in Korean kindergartens are also taught using games focused on education and coordination, such as "playing doctor" to teach body parts, food and nutrition, and work positions for adults. Songs, dances, and memorization are a big part of Korean kindergarten education.

Primary Education

Elementary schools (Korean: 초등학교, chodeung hakgyo) consists of grades one to six (age 8 to age 13 in Korean years—6 to 12 in western years). The South Korean government changed its name to the current form from Citizens' school (Korean: 국민학교, Gungmin hakgyo) in 1996. The former name was shortened from 황국신민학교 (Hwangguk sinmin hakgyo), which means school of the people who are subjects of the Empire (of Japan).

In elementary school, students learn the following subjects. The curriculum differs from grades 1-2 to grades 3-6.[66]

Grades 1-2:

Grades 3-6:

Usually, the class teacher covers most of the subjects; however, there are some specialised teachers in professions such as physical education and foreign languages, including English.

Those who wish to become a primary school teacher must major in primary education, which is specially designed to cultivate primary school teachers. In Korea, most of the primary teachers are working for public primary schools.

Because corporal punishment has been officially prohibited in every classroom since 2011, many teachers and some parents raised with corporal punishment are becoming more concerned about what they see as worsening discipline problems. However, some teachers infringe the law and raise their students with corporal punishment.[67]

Secondary Education

In 1987, there were approximately 4,895,354 students enrolled in middle schools and high schools, with approximately 150,873 teachers. About 69 percent of these teachers were male. About 98% of Korean students finish secondary education.[68] The secondary-school enrollment figure also reflected changing population trends—there were 3,959,975 students in secondary schools in 1979. Given the importance of entry into higher education, the majority of students attended general or academic high schools in 1987: 1,397,359 students, or 60 percent of the total, attended general or academic high schools, as compared with 840,265 students in vocational secondary schools. Vocational schools specialized in a number of fields: primarily agriculture, fishery, commerce, trades, merchant marine, engineering, and the arts.

Competitive entrance examinations at the middle-school level were abolished in 1968. Although as of the late 1980s, students still had to pass noncompetitive qualifying examinations, they were assigned to secondary institutions by lottery, or else by location within the boundary of the school district. Secondary schools, formerly ranked according to the quality of their students, have been equalized, with a portion of good, mediocre, and poor students being assigned to each one. The reform, however, did not equalize secondary schools completely. In Seoul, students who performed well in qualifying examinations were allowed to attend better quality schools in a "common" district, while other students attended schools in one of five geographical districts. The reforms applied equally to public and private schools whose enrollments were strictly controlled by the Ministry of Education.

In South Korea, the grade of a student is reset as the student progresses through elementary, middle and high school. To differentiate the grades between students, one would often state the grade based on the level of education he/she is in. For example, a student in a first year of middle school would be referred to as "First grade in Middle School (중학교 1학년)".

Middle schools are called Jung hakgyo (중학교) in Korean, which literally means middle school. High schools are called Godeung hakgyo (고등학교) in Korean, literally meaning "high school".

Middle school

Middle schools in South Korea consist of three grades. Most students enter at age 12 or 13 and graduate at age 15 or 16 (western years). These three grades correspond roughly to grades 7-9 in the North American system and Years 8-10 in England and Wales's system.

Middle school in South Korea marks a considerable shift from primary school, with students expected to take studies and school much more seriously. At most middle schools regulation uniforms and haircuts are enforced fairly strictly, and some aspects of students' lives are highly controlled. Like in primary school, students spend most of the day in the same homeroom classroom with the same classmates; however, students have different teachers for each subject. Teachers move around from classroom to classroom, and few teachers apart from those who teach special subjects have their own rooms to which students come. Homeroom teachers (담임교사, RR: damim gyosa) play a very important role in students' lives.

Most middle school students take seven lessons a day, and in addition to this usually have an early morning block that precedes regular lessons and an eighth lesson specializing in an extra subject to finish the day. Unlike with high school, middle school curricula do not vary much from school to school. Korean, Algebra, Geometry, English, social studies, and science form the core subjects, with students also receiving instruction in music, art, PE, korean history, ethics, home economics, technology, and Hanja. What subjects students study and in what amount may vary from year to year. All regular lessons are 45 minutes long. Before school, students have an extra block, 30-or-more minutes long, that may be used for self-study, watching Educational Broadcast System (EBS) broadcasts, or for personal or class administration. Beginning in 2008, students attended school from Monday to Friday, and had a half-day every 1st, 3rd, and 5th (calendar permitting) Saturday of the month. Saturday lessons usually included Club Activity (CA) lessons, where students could participate in extracurricular activities. However these classes were also not used well either. Many schools have regular classes except having extracurricular activities because schools and parents want students to study more. However, from 2012 onwards, primary and secondary schools, including middle schools, will no longer hold Saturday classes. However, still many schools have Saturday classes illegally because the parents want their children go to school and study.[69]

In 1969, the government abolished entrance examinations for middle school students, replacing it with a system whereby primary school students within the same district are selected for middle schools by a lottery system. This has the effect of equalizing the quality of students from school to school, though schools in areas where students come from more privileged backgrounds still tend to outperform schools in poorer areas. Until recently most middle schools have been same-sex, though in the past decade most new middle schools have been mixed, and some previously same-sex schools have converted to mixed as well. Some schools have converted to same-sex due to pressure from parents who thought that their children would study better in single-sex education.

As with primary schools, students pass from grade to grade regardless of knowledge or academic achievement, the result being that classes often have students of vastly differing abilities learning the same subject material together. In the final year of middle school examination scores become very important for the top students hoping to gain entrance into the top high schools, and for those in the middle hoping to get into an academic rather than a technical or vocational high school. Otherwise, examinations and marks only matter insofar as living up to a self-enforced concept of position in the school ranking system. There are some standardized examinations for certain subjects, and teachers of academic subjects are expected to follow approved textbooks, but generally middle school teachers have more flexibility over curricula and methods than teachers at high school.

More than 95% of the middle school students also attend independent owned, after-school tutoring agencies known as hagwon, and many receive extra instruction from private tutors. The core subjects, especially the cumulative subjects of Korean, English and math, receive the most emphasis. Some hagwon specializing in just one subject, and others offer all core subjects, constituting a second round of schooling every day for their pupils. Indeed, some parents place more stress on their children's hagwon studies than their public school studies. Additionally, many students attend academies for things such as martial arts or music. The result of all this is that many middle school students, like their high school counterparts, return from a day of schooling well after sunset. The average South Korean family spends 20% percent of its income on after-hours cram schools, more spending per capita on private tutoring than any other country.[70][71][72][73][74]

High school

High schools in South Korea teach students for three years, from first grade (age 15-17) to third grade (age 17-19), and students commonly graduate at age 18 or 19. High school students are commonly expected to study increasingly long hours each year moving toward graduation, to become competitive and be able to enter attractive universities, such as the top SKY (Seoul National, Korea, and Yonsei Universities). Many high school students wake and leave home in the morning at 5 a.m. and return home after studying well after 10 p.m., then return to specialty study schools often to 2 a.m., from Monday to Friday and also they often study on weekends.

It is a commonly known saying in Korea that 'If you sleep three hours a night, you may get into a top 'SKY university;' If you sleep four hours each night, you may get into another university; if you sleep five or more hours each night, especially in your last year of high school, forget about getting into any university.' Accordingly, many high school students in their final year do not have any free time for holidays, birthdays or vacations before the CATs (National College Scholastic Aptitude Test, Korean:수능), which are university entrance exams held by the Ministry of Education. Surprisingly, some high school students are offered chances to travel with family to enjoy fun and relaxing vacations, but these offers are often refused on the first suggestion by the students themselves, and increasingly on later additional trips if any, due to peer influences and a fear of 'falling behind' in classes. Many high school students seem to prefer staying with friends and studying, rather than taking a break. The idea of 'skipping classes' for fun is extremely rare in Korea. Rebellious students will often stay in class and use smart phones connected to the internet to chat with friends behind the teacher's back during classes.

High schools in Korea can be divided into specialty tracks that accord with a student's interest and career path. For example, there are science (Science high school), foreign language and art specialty high schools to which students can attend by passing entrance examinations which are generally highly competitive. Other types of high schools include public high schools and private high schools, both with or without entrance examinations. These high schools do not report to specialise in a field, but are more focused on sending their students to college. For students who do not wish a college education, vocational schools specialising in fields such as technology, agriculture or finance are available, such that students are employable right after graduation. Around 20% of high school students are in vocational high schools.[75]

On noting the schedule of many high school students, it is not unusual for them to arrive home from school at midnight or even as late as 3am after intensive "self-study" sessions supported by the school or parents. The Korean government has tried to crack down on such serious study habits in order to allow a more balanced system, and fined many privately run specialty study institutes ('hagwons') for running classes as late (or as early) as 2am. Some such institutes ('hagwons') also offer early morning classes for students to attend before going to school in the morning.

The normal government school curriculum is often noted as rigorous, with as many as 16 or so subjects. Most students choose to also attend privately run profit-making institutes known as hagwon (學院, Korean: 학원) to boost their academic performance. Core subjects include Korean, English and mathematics, with adequate emphasis on social and physical science subjects. Students do not typically ask questions in the classroom, but prefer to memorise details. It is critical to note that the type and level of subjects may differ from school to school, depending on the degree of selectivity and specialisation of the school. Specialty, optional, expensive, study schools help students memorise questions and answers from previous years' CAT tests (since August 1993) and universities' interview questions.

High school is not mandatory, unlike middle school education in Korea. However, according to a 2005 study of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries, some 97% of South Korea's young adults do complete high school. This was the highest percentage recorded in any country.[76] However, this is mainly due to the fact that there is no such thing as a failing grade in Korea, and most graduate as long as they attend school a certain number of days.

As it stands, the Korean secondary system of education is highly successful in preparing students for teacher-centered education such as that often used to teach mathematics since the transfer of information is mostly one way, from teacher to student. However, this does not hold true for classroom environments where students are expected to take on self-reliant roles wherein, for the most part, active and creative personalities seem to lead to success.[77]

It is becoming ever more evident that active student use of the English language in Korean high schools is increasingly necessary for the purposes of helping the students enter top universities in Korea as well as abroad.[78]


South Korea once had a strong vocational education system that it rebuilt its shattered economy after the Korean war. As the university degree grew in prominence to employers during the 1970s and 1980s, the shift to a more knowledge-based rather than an industrial economy resulted vocational education shifting in favor towards university degree for many young South Koreans and their parents. In the 1970s and 1980s, vocational education in South Korea was more than socially acceptable, as it was one way to succeed in obtaining a steady job with a decent income but many vocational graduates were scorned and stigmatized by their college educated managers despite the importance of their skills for economic development.[79]

Today the perception of vocational educational still remains in doubt in the minds of many South Koreans. In 2013, only 18 percent of students were enrolled in vocational education programs as it was due to the prestige of university—affluent families that were afford the tutoring that is now required for students to pass the notorious difficult college entrance exam and be able to attend university. Vocational students are labeled as "underachievers" and are often looked down upon as vocational jobs are known in Korea as the "3Ds" dirty, demeaning, and dangerous. In response, the South Korean government increased the number of spots in universities and the rate of university enrollment was 68.2 percent, an increase of 15 percent over 2014. As a result, to boost the positive image of vocational training, the South Korean government has been collaborating with countries such as Germany, Switzerland, and Austria to examine the innovative solutions that are being implemented to improve vocational education, training, and career options for young South Koreans as alternative to the traditional path of going to university.[79]

According to a 2012 research report from The McKinsey Global Institute reckons that the lifetime value of a college graduate’s improved earnings no longer justifies the expense required to obtain the degree and have called on the need for more vocational education to counteract the human cost of performance pressure and the high unemployment rate among the country's university-educated youth. The South Korean government, schools, and industry with assistance from the Swiss government and industry are now revamping and modernizing the country's once strong vocational education sector with a network of vocational schools called "Meister Schools". The purpose of the Meister schools is to reduce the country's shortage of vocational occupations such as plumbers, welders, boilermakers, electricians and machine operators where many of the positions go unfilled.[80] In spite of the country’s high unemployment rate during the Great Recession, secondary vocational school graduates have been successful in navigating the workforce as they possess relevant skill sets that are in high demand in the South Korean economy.[81]

Negative perception and stigmatization of vocational education continues to be the largest challenge in South Korea. The government is encouraging younger students to visit and see the programs for themselves firsthand to change their perception. Those in doubt on the quality of vocational education are encouraged to spend time working in industry during school vacations so they are up-to-date on current industry practices. Meister schools are continuing to be proving to be a good influence in changing the opinion of vocational education yet only 15,213 (5 percent) of high school students are enrolled in Meister schools with a lack of places unable to meet the demand despite a 100 percent employment rate. Meister students are now using these schools as an alternative path besides going to university; if a student works in industry for three years after graduating from a Meister, they are exempt from the extremely difficult university entrance exam.[79] Nonetheless, the perception of vocational education is changing and slowly increasing in popularity as participating students are working in adult jobs and learning real skills that are highly valued in the current marketplace as vocational school graduates have been swamped with job offers in an otherwise slow economy.[79] The initiative of Meister schools has even helped youth secure jobs at conglomerates such as Samsung over their peers who graduated from elite universities.[82] South Korea has also streamlined its small and medium sized business sector along German lines to ease dependence on the large conglomerates ever since it began introducing Meister schools into its education system.[83]

Tertiary education

Main articles: List of universities and colleges in South Korea and Category:Vocational education in South Korea


Some form of higher education has existed continuously in South Korea since the 4th century.

The development of higher education was influenced since ancient times. During the era of King So-Su-Rim in the kingdom of Goguryeo, Tae-Hak, the national university, taught the study of Confucianism, literature and martial arts. In 551, Silla which was one of three kingdoms including Goguryeo founded Guk-Hak and taught cheirospasm. It also founded vocational education that taught astronomy and medicine. Goryeo continued Silla’s program of study. Seong-gyun-gwan in the Chosun Dynasty period was a higher education institute of Confucianism and for government officials.

Today there are colleges and universities whose courses of study extend from 4 to 6 years. In addition, there are vocational colleges, industrial universities, open universities and universities of technology. There are day and evening classes, classes during vacation and remote education classes.[84] The number of institutes of higher education varied consistently from 419 in 2005, to 405 in 2008, to 411 in 2010.

Private universities account for 87.3% of total higher educational institutions. Industrial universities account for 63.6% and vocational universities account for 93.8%. These are much higher than the percentage of public institutes.[85]

Entrance requirements

Students have the option of participating in either 수시 (su-shi, early decision plans for college) or 정시 (jeong-shi, regular admissions). Students will have to take the College Scholastic Ability Test (colloquially known as 수능 Su-neung). The Korean College Scholastic Ability Test has five sections: Language Ability, Mathematical Ability, First Foreign Language Ability (English), various "elective" subjects in the social and physical sciences, and 'Second Foreign Languages or Chinese Characters and Classics'. Unlike the American SAT, this test can only be taken once a year and requires intensive studying. Students who perform below their expectations on the test and choose to defer college entrance for one year in order to try and achieve a higher score on another attempt are called jaesuseng.

For Korean university admissions, college scholastic ability tests, student’s grade books and university regulated examinations are evaluated. The student’s grade book contains an overall record of their high school activity, including voluntary work. College scholastic ability tests include language, mathematics, English, social and natural sciences, job research and a second foreign language. The job research section applies only to students of vocational schools. The second foreign language requirement applies only to students who pursued a liberal arts curriculum as opposed to natural sciences.

Because college entrance depends upon ranking high in objectively graded examinations, high school students face an "examination hell", a harsh regimen of endless cramming and rote memorization of facts that is incomparably severe.[86] Korean students study 16 hours more each week than the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) average.[68] Unlike the Confucian civil service examinations of the Choson Dynasty, their modern reincarnation is a matter of importance not for an elite, but for the substantial portion of the population with middle-class aspirations. In the late 1980s, over one-third of college-age men and women (35.2 percent in 1989) succeeded in entering and attending institutions of higher education; those who failed faced dramatically reduced prospects for social and economic advancement.

Tests given in high school (twice in each semester) were almost as important in determining college entrance as the final entrance examinations. Students had no opportunity to relax from the study routine.[86] The emphasis on memorization has been criticized.[86] Much of the family's social life concerns their student's education.[86]

Examinations are very serious times of the year and they change the whole pattern of society.[86] Businesses often open at 10 AM to accommodate parents who have helped their children study late into the night. On the evenings before exams, recreational facilities such as tennis clubs close early to facilitate study for these exams.

The costs of the "examination hell" have been evident not only in a grim and joyless adolescence for many, if not most, young South Koreans, but also in the number of suicides caused by the constant pressure of tests.[87] Often, those who committed suicide have been top achievers who suffered from despair after experiencing a slump in test performance.[86][88] Roughly 53.4% of South Korean youths who consider suicide cite excessive competition as the reason.[68] The multiple choice format of periodic high school tests and university entrance examinations has left students little opportunity to develop their creative talents.[77] A "facts only" orientation has promoted a cramped view of the world that has tended to spill over into other areas of life.

The prospects for basic change in the system —a de-emphasis on tests— were unlikely in the late 1980s. The great virtue of facts-based testing is its objectivity. Though harsh, the system is believed to be fair and impartial. The use of nonobjective criteria such as essays, personal recommendations, and the recognition of success in extracurricular activities or personal recommendations from teachers and others could open up many opportunities for corruption. In a society where social connections are extremely important, connections rather than merit might determine entry into a good university. Students who survive the numbing regimen of examinations under the modern system are at least universally acknowledged to have deserved their educational success. Top graduates who have assumed positions of responsibility in government and business have lent, through their talents, legitimacy to the whole system. Though there have been reforms on promoting individuality and creativity, yet many Korean students still face an incredible amount of pressure from school as well as their parents who enforce long hours of study to ensure strong results on the national university examinations which can determine their chances of future career success.[2]

The 'examination by university' is an assessment test that the university carries out autonomously; most universities implement an essay exam. Some implement an oral exam, interview and aptitude test. Recently, the 'admission officer system' is on the increase.[89]

Higher education

Most students enrolled in high school apply to colleges at the end of the year. College entrance depends upon ranking high in objectively graded examinations.

In the late 1980s, over one-third of college-age men and women (35.2 percent in 1989) succeeded in entering and attending institutions of higher education; those who failed faced dramatically reduced prospects for social and economic advancement. The number of students in higher education had risen from 100,000 in 1960 to 1.3 million in 1987, and the proportion of college-age students in higher-education institutions was second only to the United States.

The institutions of higher education included regular four-year colleges and universities, two-year junior vocational colleges, four-year teachers' colleges, and graduate schools. The main drawback was that college graduates wanted careers that would bring them positions of leadership in society, but there simply were not enough positions to accommodate all graduates each year and many graduates were forced to accept lesser positions. Ambitious women especially were frustrated by traditional barriers of sex discrimination as well as the lack of positions.

The curriculum of most schools is structured around the content of the entrance examination.

South Korean university rankings

With incredible pressure on high school students to secure places at the country's best universities, its institutional reputation and alumni networks are strong predictors of future job and career prospects. The top three universities in South Korea often referred to as ‘SKY” – include Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University.[2] According to the influential Joongang Ilbo University Rankings, the top 10 universities in 2012 in South Korea were Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, Pohang University of Science and Technology, Yonsei University, Seoul National University, Sungkyunkwan University, Korea University, Sogang University, Kyung Hee University, Hanyang University, and Chung-Ang University.[2]

The South Korean Ministry of Education also recognizes seven different types of institution at the higher education level of which include:[2]

The South Korean government and universities desire to improve the international rankings of the domestic universities. Attempts by the South Korean government are being made to improve the situation. Another solution may be as simple as making it fundamentally more attractive for highly qualified foreign professors and researchers to come to work and more importantly to stay in South Korea.[90] All in all, the South Korean Ministry of Education hopes to remedy the problem via the ‘National Project Toward Building World Class Universities’. The project is designed to attract highly qualified foreign professors and researchers to South Korean universities to improve their international rankings.[91]

South Korean university education often continues traditions remaining from the medieval Korean civil service examinations which entitled ambitious young men to join a clerical aristocracy. Until fairly recently many South Korean university students perceived the difficult and unpleasant entrance examination to be an end in itself, with the four years after treated as a reward. Thus South Korean universities were largely lacking in rigor with many students spending their time socializing, drinking, and dating after years of such activities being discouraged. In the past decade, however, due to South Korea's increasing globalization and inflows of foreign faculty, work expectations are more closely resembling western universities and plagiarism, once openly tolerated, is becoming stigmatized. Rural and lower-tier universities, however, still in many cases function as degree factories.


At the tertiary level, vocational education and training is provided in junior colleges (two- and three-year programs) and at polytechnic colleges. Education at junior colleges and in two-year programs in polytechnic colleges leads to an Industrial associate degree. Polytechnics also provide one-year programs for craftsmen and master craftsmen and short programs for employed workers. The requirements for admission to these institutions are in principle the same as those in the rest of tertiary sector (on the basis of the College Scholastic Aptitude Test) but candidates with vocational qualifications are given priority in the admission process. Junior colleges have expanded rapidly in response to demand and in 2006 enrolled around 27% of all tertiary students. 95% of junior college students are in private institutions. Fees charged by private colleges are approximately twice those of public institutions. Polytechnic colleges are state-run institutions under the responsibility of the Ministry of Labour; government funding keeps student fees much lower than those charged by other tertiary institutions. Around 5% of students are enrolled in polytechnic colleges.[75]

A network of Meister Schools has been developed to revamp South Korea's vocational education system that is specifically designed to prepare youths to work in high-skilled manufacturing jobs and other fields. Many of these Meister schools offer a wide range of trades and technical disciplines that offer near guarantee of employment to graduates with an industry-supported curriculum design, with focus on developing skills required by various trades.[92] The government of South Korea has taken initiatives to improve the perception of vocational training and combat the negative stigma attached to manual and technical work. In addition, vocational streams have been integrated with academic streams to allow a seamless transition to universities in order to allow further advancement if a young South Korean chooses to pursue higher education. With changing demands in the Information Age workforce, global forecasts show that by 2030, the demand for vocational skills will increase in contrast to the declining demand for unskilled labor largely due to technological advances.[92] In 2010, the Meister schools chose a total of 3,600 students for technical education and apprenticeships so that they can develop expertise in fields such as shipbuilding, mechanical engineering, semiconductor manufacturing and medical equipment. Graduates of Meister high schools have been successful in the job market and are flooded with job offers from companies. Boosting employment for young people through high quality vocational education has become a top priority for the Park administration, since youth unemployment is roughly three times higher than the national average.[93] Despite promising employment prospects and good pay offered by vocational education that rival the income of many university graduates, negative social attitudes and prejudice towards technicians and vocational high school students are treated unfairly and are still looked down upon. The social stigma associated with vocational careers and not having a university degree continues to remain deep rooted in South Korean society.[11]

Government influence

Ministry of Education

The Ministry of Education has been responsible for South Korean education since 25 February 2013. Its name was The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (often abbreviated into "the Ministry of Education") since 25 February 2008 to 24 February 2013. The former body, the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development, was named by the former Minister of Education, who enhanced its function in 2001 because the administration of Kim Dae-jung considered education and human resources development as a matter of the highest priority. As a result of the reform, it began to cover the whole field of human resource development and the minister of education was appointed to the Vice Prime Minister. In 2008, the name was changed into the present one after the Lee Myeong Bak administration annexed the former Ministry of Science and Technology to the Education ministry. Like other ministers, the Minister of Education, Science and Technology is appointed by the president. They are mainly chosen from candidates who have an academic background and often resign in a fairly short term (around one year). (Ministry of Education has no more work on science and technology because President Park restorated the Ministry works for science and technology)

Teachers' union

Although primary- and secondary-school teachers traditionally enjoyed high status, they often were overworked and underpaid during the late 1980s. Salaries were less than those for many other white-collar professions and even some blue-collar jobs. High school teachers, particularly those in the cities, however, received sizable gifts from parents seeking attention for their children, but teaching hours were long and classes crowded (the average class contained around fifty to sixty students).

In May 1989, teachers established an independent union, the Korean Teachers Union (KTU — 전국교원노동조합(전교조), Jeongyojo). Their aims included improving working conditions and reforming a school system that they regarded as overly controlled by the Ministry of Education. Although the government promised large increases in allocations for teachers' salaries and facilities, it refused to give the union legal status. Because teachers were civil servants, the government claimed they did not have the right to strike and, even if they did have the right to strike, unionization would undermine the status of teachers as "role models" for young Koreans. The government also accused the union of spreading subversive, leftist propaganda that was sympathetic to the communist regime in North Korea.

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal Asia, the union claimed support from 82 percent of all teachers. The controversy was viewed as representing a major crisis for South Korean education because a large number of teachers (1,500 by November 1989) had been dismissed, violence among union supporters, opponents, and police had occurred at several locations, and class disruptions had caused anxieties for families of students preparing for the college entrance examinations. The union's challenge to the Ministry of Education's control of the system and the charges of subversion had made compromise seem a very remote possibility at the start 1990.

Political involvement in the education system

South Korea still has issues with North Korea after the Korean War. This contributed South Korea's confrontational stance against North Korea in the education field. For instance, on July 7, 2011, the National Intelligence Service was criticized for the search and seizure of a civilian think tank, Korea Higher Education Research Institution (한국대학교육연구소).[94] This incident was carried out through a warrant to investigate an alleged South Korean spy who followed an instruction from North Korea with a purpose of instigating university student rallies to stop the ongoing tuition hike in South Korea.

English education

English is taught as a required subject from the third year of elementary school up to high school, as well as in most universities, with the goal of performing well on the TOEIC and TOEFL, which are tests of reading, listening and grammar-based English. For students who achieve high scores, there is also a speaking evaluation.

Because of large class sizes and other factors in public schools, many parents pay to send their children to private English-language schools in the afternoon or evening. Usually different private English-language schools specialize in teaching elementary school students or in middle and high school students. The most ambitious parents send their children to kindergartens that utilize English exclusively in the classroom. Many children also live abroad for anywhere from a few months to several years to learn English. Sometimes, a Korean mother and her children will move to an English-speaking country for an extended period of time to enhance the children's English ability. In these cases, the father left in Korea is known as a gireogi appa (Korean: 기러기 아빠), literally a "goose dad" who must migrate to see his family.[95]

There are more than 100,000 Korean students in the U.S. The increase of 10 percent every year helped Korea remain the top student-sending country in the U.S. for a second year, ahead of India and China. Korean students at Harvard University are the third most after Canadian and Chinese. In 2012, 154,000 South Korean students were pursuing degrees at overseas universities, with countries such as Japan, Canada, the United States, and Australia as top destinations.[96]

Korean English classes focus on vocabulary, grammar, and reading. Academies tend to include conversation, and some offer debate and presentation.

Due to recent curriculum changes, the education system in Korea is now placing a greater emphasis on English verbal abilities rather than grammatical skills. Universities require all first year students to take an English conversation class in their first year and some universities require students to take conversational English classes throughout the entirety of their university life. According to a 2003 survey conducted by the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, despite being one of the countries in Asia that spends the most money on English-language education, South Korea ranks the lowest among 12 Asian countries in English ability.

English as a subject discipline, that is, the study of linguistics, literature, composition/rhetoric, or pedagogy is uncommon except in top-tier or graduate programs in Korea. As a result, despite efforts to recruit foreign faculty in Korean universities, opportunities for tenure are fewer and professorial privileges and salaries are lower than for foreigners contracted to teach major disciplinary courses in English (content-based instruction).

Controversy and criticism

Students' health

South Korea's scarcity of natural resources is often cited as a reason for the rigorousness and fierce competition of its school systems; the academic pressure on its students is arguably the largest in the world. In an article entitled "An Assault Upon Our Children", Se-Woong Koo wrote that "the system's dark side casts a long shadow. Dominated by tiger moms, cram schools and highly authoritarian teachers, South Korean education produces ranks of overachieving students who pay a stiff price in health and happiness. The entire program amounts to child abuse. It should be reformed and restructured without delay."[97] In a response to the article, educator Diane Ravitch warned against modeling an educational system in which children "exist either to glorify the family or to build the national economy". She argued furthermore that the happiness of South Korean children has been sacrificed, and likened the country's students to "cogs in a national economic machine".[98] A 2014 poll found that over half of South Korean teenagers have suicidal thoughts, with over 40% of respondents reporting that school pressure and future uncertainty dismayed them the most.[99] Furthermore, suicide is currently the leading cause of death among South Korean youth.[100]

Academic elitism

The South Korean political system has a strong academic elitism. Conservative politician Jeon Yeo-ok openly opposed the nomination of the former president Roh Moo-hyun who did not graduate from a higher level institution, but passed the state-run judicial examinations.[118]

See also


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