Closing elite university feeder schools won’t end inequity

Aimee Chung recently reported in an article titled “Minister moves against elite university feeder schools” that eight of the 13 ‘autonomous private high schools’ in Seoul, South Korea, have had their licences revoked by the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, thus advancing President Moon Jae-in’s 2017 election pledge to ‘get rid of’ elite schools.

These private autonomous high schools are known for being granted the flexibility to (1) academically select and admit students, (2) finance operations without having to disclose their tuition fees, and (3) adopt their own curriculum designed specifically to prepare students for admission to elite universities.

Perhaps expectedly, these schools have become the destination of choice for well-off families that sought higher academic standards and a tacit assurance that their child would enter one of its affiliated universities, such as Ewha Womans University or Hanyang University.

The reason for establishing these schools was, supposedly, to provide a more diverse, creativity-oriented education, supplementing the nation’s national curriculum by adding discussion groups and student research projects to the standard (and often considered not engaging enough) front-of-classroom teaching approach.

The decision to cancel licences (and therefore special status) was taken following a scheduled performance assessment exercise that concluded that the schools were not achieving their original intent.

Will cancelling licences work?

Although the loss of licences will likely be challenged in court, as parents and school supporters express their discontent, questions arise as to whether this attempt at curbing excessive competition to enter the best universities will be successful.

Additionally, will the elimination of private autonomous high schools level the playing field for admission to the elite league of universities? Or will affluent families seek alternative ways to give their students a ‘leg up’ in the educational arms race?

In a previous commentary for University World News, we argued that households in South Korea often find themselves in an educational access trap: families in the aggregate are overinvesting in their children’s education as they compete against each other for access to a very limited number of spots at the nation’s top universities.

According to Korean media accounts, annual tuition costs at a private elementary school in Seoul are equivalent to a year of college study. For instance, Hanyang Elementary School tuition fees amounted to KRW8,376,000 (US$6,910) per year in 2019. These excessive expenditures carry significant economic and health costs for families and children, as reported in the media and published literature.

We further noted that while families are expected to invest in educational opportunities for their children in order to raise their expected future lifetime income stream, each household’s investment raises other households’ incentives to match or exceed such educational expenditure. This is due to educational complementarities and the aggregate effect is overinvestment.

Although families recognise this, no individual family seems willing to reduce expenditure or, more importantly, stop seeking any educational advantage available to their children.

In fact, the same ‘force’ would predict that ‘autonomous private high schools’ would quickly morph into official ‘feeder’ schools for prestigious universities. It is also this force that has us now predicting that withdrawing licences, although a noble and notable effort, will not reduce the overheated competition for prestigious university places.

In fact, it is likely that wealthy families will simply shift their resources to private after-school tutoring services. This will not only perpetuate the highly competitive nature of South Korea’s educational system but will also reinforce the educational inequities resulting from this system.

Private tutoring

In fact, a standard economic model of household investment in private tutoring would predict these exact results, as we explored in previous research. Continuing research indicates that families with greater human capital and wealth will spend more resources on private tutoring activities.

Our model also predicts that students with greater academic readiness and aptitude demand more after-school tutoring services. That is, families who are already privileged will not only have the resources but also the incentive to pursue alternative sources of competitive advantages.

Withdrawing licences from autonomous private high schools is thus unlikely to reduce education inequality or diminish the educational ‘arms race’. Rather, our research indicates that this will be done by reducing excessive educational investment, and accompanying competition and inequality and demanding structural changes and a long-term plan involving all stakeholders.

Although not achievable overnight, such changes must focus on reducing the importance of college entrance exams as well as promoting workplace-oriented vocational training and entrepreneurship as alternate educational pathways.

Reviewing admissions systems

Elite universities should be encouraged to rethink and redesign their admissions tests to align with the standard high school curriculum. That is, prestigious universities should not include questions that are ‘excessively advanced’ and therefore can only be answered by students who have attended private after-school programmes or enrolled in autonomous high schools with advanced curricula.

Given the expected private and social costs of excessive competition, elite universities should be encouraged to explore other ways to identify exceptional students for admission to their programmes.

Revamping South Korea’s reliance on a college entrance exam and advanced admission tests may thus address the current market forces and household self-interest that currently push students to private cram schools (hagwons) and high schools designed to feed students to elite universities.

In this way, perhaps the ‘autonomous private high schools’ will revert to their original mandate of offering creative curricula and more engaging teaching practices, which Korean high schools need.

Perhaps middle and high school students will be able to reclaim their evenings to play, unwind and meet their friends. Perhaps South Korea will experience social benefits, such as increased rates of fertility, reduced rates of suicide and improved household debt.

Professor David Santandreu Calonge is dean of the faculty of communication, arts and sciences at Canadian University Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. He has previously worked in Hong Kong (Hong Kong University, City University of Hong Kong, Lingnan University, Hong Kong Baptist University), South Korea (Sungkyunkwan University) and Australia (RMIT University, the University of Adelaide) and has written extensively in the areas of education policy. Dr Patrik Hultberg is the Edward and Virginia Van Dalson professor of economics at Kalamazoo College, USA. He is currently a visiting professor at Canadian University Dubai. He is also a visiting professor at Sungkyunkwan University, South Korea, where he teaches at the International Summer Semesters.