Moon announces admissions reform and end of elite schools

The recent resignation of South Korean justice minister Cho Kuk over allegations relating to favourable university admissions for his daughter and other corruption allegations has spurred the government of President Moon Jae-in to accelerate reforms in the country’s admissions system.

Just two weeks after the resignation of his embattled justice minister, Moon announced what he called “public trust building measures”, including rejigging the proportion of school leavers admitted to university on the basis of their marks in the gruelling College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), and an unequivocal end to elite private high schools and foreign language schools by 2025.

Elite private schools which do not have to follow Korea’s national curriculum have been used to provide more privileged families a leg-up into the country’s top universities, according to critics.

That criticism became more vocal during the Cho debacle. Opportunities for well-connected parents to help their children to embellish their school and out-of-school records became apparent when details emerged of a series of internships apparently negotiated through Cho family network contacts.

Internships undertaken by Cho’s daughter, Cho Min, are currently part of a criminal investigation into Cho’s wife, Chung Kyung-sim, a professor at Dongyang University who was arrested on 24 October. She will stand trial on charges related to alleged falsification of internship certificates for their daughter. Cho himself has denied any involvement in the case.

“People are desperately calling for the promotion of fairness in education,” Moon said on 25 October at a specially-convened education policy meeting of ministers. He pointed to “an education system facing a crisis from a lack of public trust. More people are feeling hopeless, believing that education has become a means to inherit one’s parents’ socio-economic status,” he said.

“Re-establishing public trust through a fair education system is the most important education task at this time,” Moon said. “This should start with university admissions.”

Moon’s popularity ratings have plummeted, particularly among young people, as a result of the Cho affair with huge protests held in September and October calling for Cho’s resignation. Cho resigned on 14 October after just 35 days as minister.

“Though wrapped in the slogan of a fair society, Moon’s sudden emphasis on the need to change the college admission system seems politically motivated – a way to turn around the negative public sentiment ahead of next April’s parliamentary elections,” said an editorial in the English-language Korea Herald this week.

Moon had announced during his National Assembly budget speech on 22 October that the proportion of admissions via the CSAT would be increased. The announcement took many government officials by surprise.

Moon said at the 25 October meeting that increasing the proportion of scores-based admissions – currently 30% of admissions – would not be enough to restore public trust, pointing to a need for more “impartial” screening of student records during the admissions process. Officials would come up with relevant measures soon, Moon said.

Total elimination of elite schools

The government announced it will convert all the autonomous elite schools without recourse to the existing licensing process – a move that officials said was discussed by the Moon administration in September. Some 77 such schools are licensed, with a large number in Seoul including feeder schools for top universities.

“These high schools have become too focused on getting students into top universities in the country,” Education Minister Yoo Eun-hye said at a 25 October press conference. “The ministry will be working on converting all of them into regular high schools by 2025 and improving the quality of education at regular high schools throughout the country.”

The elimination of elite schools was an election pledge during a campaign that brought Moon to power in 2017. But the process of periodically assessing elite schools to ensure they conform to particular criteria in order to retain their licence to operate is seen to be ineffective as a number of such schools have resorted to lengthy legal action to retain their status.

Some 13 universities with more than 25% of the student body from elite private schools or their own feeder schools were inspected by the ministry in September, looking in particular at “fairness” and the authentication of documents submitted during the admissions process.

Universities that have undergone the audit said investigators were also looking at whether students from elite private schools showed any advantages over those who entered via CSAT scores, in order to dispel suspicions about grading systems at elite high schools. The evaluations of admissions committees were also being checked.

The Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations said the high school system should not be changed whenever the administration changes.

Students have diverse needs and “we have yet to know whether the new credit system will run as well as planned so it is irrational to scrap all autonomous schools that have been providing different curricula”, the association’s spokesperson Cho Sung-Chul told local media.

Return to exam-based admissions

Parents and universities’ main focus will be on the increase in CSAT-based admissions, which critics say encourages cramming at South Korea’s infamous after-school cram academies. Academics note this is a reversal the government’s policy – during his election campaign Moon promised to promote admissions based on criteria other than academic scores, which was fuelling Korea’s cram industry and causing severe stress among high school students.

More than a year of debate after Moon took office ended in a decision last year to ask all universities to expand the quota for selection via the CSAT to 30% by 2022. In 2018 just under 23% of admissions were based on CSAT scores, which the Korean Council for University Education says was a record low.

And only a few weeks ago Education Minister Yoo told a parliamentary committee the test-based admissions quota would not be increased. Instead the ministry would “improve transparency” in the early admissions system.

Yoo indicated a reversal of that position in her 25 October press conference. “Universities based in Seoul that select students based on their grade averages, extracurricular activities and special skill sets will have to select more based on their CSAT scores,” she said, adding the exact increase will be announced in the coming month.

Leaked comments from officials suggest the proportion could rise to 40% of admissions by 2025.

However, ruling Democratic Party member Kim Byung-wook said during a National Assembly debate on 29 October that “until fairness is assured, the proportion of selection through the CSAT examination should be increased to more than 50%”.

A boom in early admissions began in 2002 and in 2007 for the first time early admissions overtook the proportion of CSAT-based admissions and has been rising ever since and is now up to three-quarters of all admissions at some universities.

Universities prefer the early admissions system because it gives them more autonomy over selection and allows them to choose more well-rounded students as it takes into account other skills and abilities, including voluntary work, internships and extracurricular activities. Many universities increasingly criticise the high multiple choice content in the CSAT.

“Essays need to be increased in the CSAT,” said one admissions officer at a university in Seoul, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

However, she expected that the proportion of students entering on the basis of special essays, research papers or projects would decline in the wake of the Cho affair and other revelations of assistance provided to students by well-connected parents, particularly parents who are professors.

University heads have declined to comment on the effects of any government-imposed increases in the proportion of students admitted on the basis of CSAT scores until specific details are released.