In the past decade South Korea has been widely celebrated in Western media for its consistently high international test scores in several educational subjects. In contrast with this international acclaim, recently numerous Korean articles and video reports have detailed the ills and shortcomings of the current education system.
According to these reports, the Korean education ‘machine’ produces so many highly-qualified students that the government is unable to provide sufficient and adequate employment opportunities, given the rigid structure of the domestic labour market.
Besides, only a limited number of sought-after chaebols or large corporations such as Hyundai, LG or Samsung are likely to employ them, as small and medium-sized enterprises or SMEs in Korean society do not hold similar prestige, networking opportunities and salary scales.
Statistics on Korea indicate that youth unemployment in 2017 is at an all-time high as many graduates defer entry into the labour market until they successfully pass one of the demanding chaebol's entry tests.
As a result, and in a struggling economic context, students are today competing fiercely for these limited full-time, reputable, secure, relatively well-paid and long-term jobs and this competition starts as early as primary school.
Unity means strength
One result of the keen competition for better education is the emergence of very lucrative private after-school tutoring academies called hagwons as well as a less known phenomenon: the ‘pig mum’.
A consequence of the expensive and often unsatisfactory hagwons and the intricacies of the market for private after-school programmes is that families have begun to pool their resources, under the leadership of a self-elected or nominated Dwaeji Omma or ‘pig mum’, a fascinating phenomenon that has never been addressed in Western literature.
These mothers create small, complex social networks based on friendship, hobbies, social status (often related to income) and-or educational background. By creating supportive study-group networks of children and liaising with private tutors (and increasingly corrupt government officials), pig mums are able to strategise, lobby, gain access to and negotiate with the best tutors.
The tightly-knit networks where kids’ educational pathways are seriously discussed, planned and meticulously scheduled often include hagwon owners as a way of securing scarce spots at the best after-school academies. The most renowned and influential ones are in Daechi-dong and adjacent regions of the affluent Gangnam District in Seoul.
The pig mum researches, strategically programmes and organises all aspects of her academic network (study venues, teachers, transportation, rest times, health) with the ultimate goal of admission into one of the three most prestigious Korean universities – Seoul National University, Korea University or Yonsei University (or SKY universities) – for all the children under her tutelage.
The impact of these pig mum networks goes far beyond charting the educational journey of the children who take part in them; they also appear to have a significant impact on the real estate market in Seoul.
Statistics indicate that they contribute to an increased demand for residential studio-apartment complexes in the Gangnam area, which has risen as a consequence of the hagwons and pig mum phenomenon. These ‘commercial’ studios are ideal for private group lectures as they provide privacy and accessibility.
Pig mums also influence supply and demand for after-school programmes by acting as intermediaries between students and hagwons so their children can gain access to the best teachers and programmes. That is, families strategically send their child to a well-established and well-connected pig mum rather than personally negotiating with a hagwon to obtain better deals and a place at a top private academy.
Dire societal consequences
Competition for limited places on after-school programmes, for university entrance and well-paid and secure job opportunities have a significant impact on various echelons of Korean society, with serious collateral consequences.
In 2013, Korea ranked among the highest in the OECD – Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – for household debt, depression, divorce and alcohol consumption.
A Korean Ministry of Education survey of 6.5 million students showed that 16.3% needed psychiatric counselling, with 4.5% needing intensive treatment and 1.5% classified as “in imminent danger, such as committing suicide”.
In 2015, the OECD reported that Korea had the second highest rate of suicides among all OECD countries. In 2014, only 67.6% of Korean youth said they were satisfied with their life, mostly because of study pressure. Moreover, in 2015 Korea ranked in the bottom fifth of OECD countries in three categories – social connections, work-life balance and health status.
Given that excessive competition for educational success has social welfare consequences for students and their families as well as negative implications on household finances, should the government address these issues?
The recently-elected administration of President Moon Jae-in has proposed new educational policies which aim to curb the excessive and powerful influence of the SKY pedigree in hiring decisions. In Korea, a SKY degree brings privilege and is often a prerequisite for entry into a high-status job.
Moon Jae-in's government has proposed to abolish the 84 elite ‘special purpose’ high schools as well as lower university tuition fees, a significant pain point for past governments.
However, to improve household finances and the welfare of students, policies must directly address the forces that drive excessive competition. These include less reliance on the suneung, the nationwide college-entrance exam, addressing the hierarchical system in schools, as well as restructuring the labour market away from chaebols and towards SMEs and start-ups.
The appointment of Kim Sang-kon as education minister with his declaration that the system is “in need of a fundamental fix” is a good opportunity to make progress.
To avoid past criticism and to address this need for a fundamental fix, we suggest that there needs to be better communication and collaboration mechanisms between all stakeholders, including parents, in order to achieve an educational system that is democratic, equitable, available, affordable, accessible and beneficial to all students.
A solution to Korea’s educational issues can only be found in an environment of open and public dialogue based on transparency, trust and cooperation with all key parties, coupled with a willingness to respond to the issues raised.
Dr David Santandreu Calonge is manager of academic development at the University of Adelaide in Australia, and visiting professor at Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea, where he teaches at the International Summer Semesters. Dr Patrik Hultberg is associate professor of economics and coordinator of educational effectiveness at Kalamazoo College in the United States, and visiting professor at Sungkyunkwan University, where he teaches at the International Summer Semesters. Dr Eugene Lee is adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Governance at Sungkyunkwan University, South Korea.
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