Minister moves against elite university feeder schools

South Korea’s Minister of Education Yoo Eun-hae has approved the cancellation of licences of 10 private high schools, eight of them in the capital Seoul, as part of President Moon Jae-in’s push to fulfil his election pledge to level the field for the country’s highly competitive entry to top universities.

The education ministry approved cancellation of the licences on 2 August, sending a strong signal of government’s determination to crack down on South Korea’s highly pressurised education culture. Many parents also ‘cram’ their children to get into such schools, which are seen as the pathway to top universities. Several are affiliated with prestigious universities and act as their feeder schools.

The institutions affected were among 42 high schools allowed considerable autonomy to run their own curriculum, and which catered to families willing to pay for specialised preparation for top schools. The government says such schools exacerbate imbalances in the education system to favour the privileged.

The schools had previously been slated to lose their licences by their local education authorities after they failed to pass a performance test, which in some provinces includes a proportion of students from poorer backgrounds.

The ministry said that by March next year the schools will become normal schools following Korea’s national curriculum.

However one school, Sansang High School in Jeonju in North Jeolla province, whose licence was recommended to be revoked by the local education authority last month, was given a reprieve by the ministry on the basis that its performance assessment was flawed. Another – Kyung Moon High School in Seoul – voluntarily requested to switch status to become a normal school, reportedly for financial reasons.

Education offices throughout the country assess autonomous private high schools every five years to determine whether they can maintain their autonomous private status. In order for such schools to maintain the status, they must score a minimum of 70 points out of 100 in their assessment by local education offices.

The ministry confirmed a week earlier that Sangsan High School would retain its special status despite the local authority saying that the school did not pass its assessment. Assessments follow ministry guidelines, but local education authorities have discretion to alter criteria that include tuition, curriculum, teacher qualifications, facilities and student assessments.

The decision by the North Jeolla education office to revoke the status of Sangsan – the most prestigious school in the province – which was announced in June, was controversial because the education office raised the passing score from 70 points to 80 points out of 100. Sangsan scored 79.61 points, according to the North Jeolla education office.

The ministry said the North Jeolla office had wrongfully evaluated the criterion for admission from lower-income households. Sangsan said it had understood such children were to make up about 3% of the student quota – but the education office suddenly and arbitrarily raised it to 10%.


An alliance of principals of the affected schools said in advance of the decision that they would take legal action “if even one school has its licence revoked”. The schools have criticised the assessments for being unfair and opaque.

Parents at Haeundae High School in Busan, whose licence has been revoked, have said they will take legal action to reverse the decision. School principals of affected elite schools in Seoul also said they would go to the law.

Half of the 42 autonomous private high schools in the country have been evaluated so far under the current round.

Seoul Education Office Superintendent Cho Hee-yeon, who wants to completely eliminate elite private schools even if they pass performance assessments, last month proposed a revision in the law to ban schools – including private autonomous schools – from having their own curriculum.

Some 40% of special schools and elite private schools with leeway to follow their own curriculum are situated in the capital.

In 2017 Cho extended licences for five Seoul autonomous schools for five years because of their high scores in performance evaluations, and said he was only doing so because of the existing rules. He warned at the time that the rules would be revised.