History of Education in South Korea

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.

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 and, by the late 1980s, sources estimated it at around 93 percent. 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, 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.

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. In 2013, 43,000 South Koreans in their twenties, and 21,000 in their thirties lost their jobs. 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. 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. Educational reforms initiated by the South Korean government have become more dynamic and that university is no longer the only guarantee of a career. 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. 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.

An oversaturated and overqualified labor market has resulted shortages of skilled blue-collar 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. 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. In the country, 70.9 percent of high school graduates went on to university in 2014, the highest college attendance rate among the Organization for Economic and Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries. In the third quarter of 2016, one out of three unemployed people in South Korea were university graduates largely attributed to the combination of a protracted South Korean economic slowdown and so-called academic inflation. 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. 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. 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. 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. Further criticism has been stemmed for causing labor shortages in various skilled blue-collar labor 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 blue-collar workers to fill potential vocational job vacancies. 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. 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.

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. 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. 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. 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. With the changing dynamics in the global economy in the 21st century as well as the implementation of vocational education in the South Korean education system 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. 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.