Universities to be punished for admissions ‘arms race’

As part of its drive to clamp down on excessive tutoring and elite private schools that prepare students for the best universities, the South Korean government has ordered almost a dozen universities – including its top three universities – to revamp their admissions tests to bring them more in line with the normal high school curriculum.

The government has said it would punish repeat-offending universities by reducing the number of students they are allowed to recruit in the next academic year, reduce subsidies for university projects and even punish university presidents themselves unless they eliminate such test questions.

The Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation analysed almost 2,300 exam questions set by around 57 universities which administer their own admissions tests. It said this month some 11 universities were found to have ‘excessively advanced’ questions in mathematics and science. These could only have been answered well if students had recourse to elite private science schools, additional tutoring or private cram schools known as hagwons.

Among the universities found to have violated South Korea’s regulations to curb excessive private education were the country’s top universities, Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University, collectively known as SKY, which attract the highest-scoring school-leavers.

The offending universities also included Andong National University, Konyang, Sangji, Halla and Ulsan universities, Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology and Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute for Science and Technology.

Yonsei University’s campuses in Seoul and Wonju, and the University of Ulsan were said to have violated the regulations for the second year in succession. The ministry of education has said it will look into punishing the universities, including a partial ban on recruiting students for the 2019 academic year.

Key election pledge

Reducing educational competition was one of the key election pledges of the new government of President Moon Jae-in, who has promised to curb elite schools which the government says exacerbate education inequality and provoke an education ‘arms race’ where parents spend more and more money on education to give their children an edge over their peers.

Some 46 private autonomous high schools, almost half of them in Seoul, do not require government approval for their curricula, which allows them to charge high fees to prepare students specifically for the top universities which set their own tests.

The education ministry said in a recent statement, "we will gradually turn elite high schools into regular schools, starting on a voluntary basis, in order to minimise chaos”.

“The current education system has departed from the initial purpose of creating diversity and autonomy in education to providing training designed to enter top-tier universities,” Cho Hee-yeon, head of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency in June.

Cho said in a separate interview with local media that rich families have more resources for their kids to win the race, while others keep pushing their kids into the hierarchical education environment to get into top-tier universities and climb up the ladder.

Other reforms

However, other reforms to combat the worst excesses of the admissions race have been slowed by the incoming government.

Under the previous administration of former president Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s education ministry began to look into changes to the gruelling college admissions test known in Korea as the Suneung. But Moon, elected in May after Park’s impeachment in March, has postponed the proposed revision of the make-or-break Suneung in order to consult more closely with the public on what is an emotive and divisive issue in the country.

It will also allow the government more time for a more wide-ranging overhaul of the college admissions system than was previously envisaged, including a closer look at alternative routes. It is now thought unlikely that a new college exam system could be introduced before 2022.

Flawed alternative routes

Alternative routes into university bypassing the Suneung, and which recognise extra-curricular activities and-or set special essays, tests or interviews, had been brought in in recent years but have been heavily criticised.

Even with the admission systems that don’t require the entrance exam, there have been abuses by elites, as in the high-profile case of Chung Yoo-ra, daughter of ousted president Park Geun-hye's friend and a former member of the national equestrian team, who was found to have received undue admissions favours to gain a place at the prestigious Ewha Womans University in Seoul under its special programme for student athletes.

At a joint press conference recently, Kim Yong-hak, president of Yonsei University, and Yeom Jae-ho, president of Korea University, said student athletes applying to their universities would be required to meet certain academic standards starting in 2021 and would not be allowed to participate in competitions unless they could show a certain level of academic achievement.

The university leaders denied the move was linked to the Chung case and that their consideration of the changes had preceded the scandal.

Meanwhile, the Korean Council for University Education found that more than 1,500 college admission essays submitted to universities last year, often as an alternative to the Suneung, were suspected of being plagiarised. Elite schools and hagwons often provide extensive essay preparation and assistance that other students do not have recourse to.