Higher 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. 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.

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: Korean Ability, Mathematical Ability, English Ability, 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. Every year some students commit suicide because they are pessimistic of the scores they got in su-neung.

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. Korean students study 16 hours more each week than the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) average. 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. The emphasis on memorization has been criticized. Much of the family's social life concerns their student's education.

Examinations are very serious times of the year and they change the whole pattern of society. 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. Often, those who committed suicide have been top achievers who suffered from despair after experiencing a slump in test performance. Roughly 53.4% of South Korean youths who consider suicide cite excessive competition as the reason. The multiple-choice format of periodic high school tests and university entrance examinations has left students little opportunity to develop their creative talents. 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.

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.

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

Colleges and universities
Industrial universities
Universities of education
Junior colleges
Broadcast and correspondence universities
Technical colleges
Other miscellaneous institutions

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. 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.

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.

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. The schools are based on the German-style Meister schools, to teach bright youngsters to become masters of a technical trade. Meister schools were set up to tackle the nations high youth unemployment rate as millions of young South Korean university graduates remain idle instead of taking up a trade while managers of small and medium businesses complain of skilled trade shortages. 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. 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. Meister schools offer apprenticeship based training as an alternative beyond the traditional university takes place at vocational high schools, community and polytechnic colleges. Meister schools also offer employment supportive systems for specialized Meister high school students. The South Korean government has established an "Employment First, College Later" philosophy whereas after graduation students are encouraged to seek employment first before making plans for university. 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. 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 full salary 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.

Graduates from vocational high schools have been successful in navigating through South Korea's highly competitive and sluggish job market. Many graduates both quantitatively and qualitatively found more employment opportunities in a number of industry sectors across the South Korean economy. 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 stigmatized, treated unfairly and are still looked down upon. There were also concerns about discrimination against people with lower educational backgrounds, a long-standing tendency of South Korean employers. The negative social stigma associated with vocational careers and not having a university degree also continues to remain deep rooted in South Korean society.