Lukewarm reaction to university admissions exam changes

The government of South Korea this week unveiled its highly anticipated plan for reform of the standardised university entrance exam, also known as the College Scholastic Ability Test (Suneung), after postponing the release date three times.

The aim of the proposals is to make the intensely competitive exam and university admissions system fairer and alleviate some of the economic burden for parents resorting to cram schools. It hopes to eliminate the ‘arms race’ of additional courses as students try to secure an edge over their peers.

However, while teachers’ associations are concerned the influence of the competitive exam on school education and university admissions will continue, some top universities say it will not have a significant impact on their admissions.

According to the proposal made public by the education ministry on 10 October, optional subjects in the national exam for Korean, mathematics and subjects such as social studies and sciences will be removed, ensuring all candidates take the same exam. The changes are slated for 2028 as the government needs to provide substantial advance notice to schools to bring in curricular changes.

From the 2025 academic year, when the new exam cohort of students enters high school, the grading system for internal school assessments which can also count towards admissions, will change from the current 9 grade system to a 5-tier relative grading system, which is intended to ease competition.

However, the much-debated essay and descriptive questions, originally floated as a way to reduce unnecessary competition and foster students’ holistic thinking abilities, have been excluded in this proposal.

Admissions ratio retained

Despite the proposed changes, the proportion of students accepted by universities after the results of the exam are announced – known as the ‘regular admissions ratio’ – is being maintained at 40%.

This is despite the fact that since entering office in a year ago Education Minister Lee Ju-ho had expressed regret on maintaining the ‘40% regular admissions’, and amid widespread anticipation that the regular admissions percentage would decrease in this proposal.

The deterioration of public education and the growth of private tutoring, coupled with criticisms that the system stifles 21st-century holistic thinking, had led to the national exam’s importance being reduced to 30% of admission in 2018.

However, due to fairness controversies under the previous administration of president Moon Jae-in, national exam-based admissions were increased to 40% of admissions in 2019. At that time, the exam-based admissions policy was also criticised for not being aligned with other government policies such as admissions based on more comprehensive student records.

Private tutoring continued to grow.

Admissions officials say selection will be more difficult

Yang Chan-woo, head of the university admissions support division of the Korean Council for University Education, said universities would lose their autonomy in selecting students under the government’s proposals.

“Efforts to reform the college scholastic ability test to benefit ‘well-rounded students’ are evident. But the regrettable part concerns the autonomy of universities in selecting students,” he said. “I believe true innovative talents that can benefit society can be nurtured only when universities can autonomously select talents that fit the characteristics of their institution and trends in society,” he added.

Admission officials, who are obliged to select more than 40% of their intake through the national exam, said that not just regular admissions, but the parallel system of rolling admissions for selecting students becomes problematic under these proposals, with five grades for schools’ internal assessments leading to fewer means to evaluate students.

They say they now face the challenge of finding a ‘third way’ to select students.

“If the negative effects from areas like awards and (extra) reading which are excluded from (official) student records are resolved, and high school data is ‘blinded’, then there might be differentiation in evaluations. However, the available data for these (qualitative) evaluations is woefully inadequate,” an admissions official at a major university said, referring to school-blind admissions which could help students who have not attended elite schools.

Some universities are considering integrating quantitative scores — such as school test scores and the national exam — and qualitative evaluations that look at students’ overall school activities. For example, Kyung Hee University includes documented qualitative evaluations in their subject admissions process.

The dean of admissions from a major university in Seoul said that if student qualitative records are reflected in regular admissions it could add to the burden of university preparation rather than reduce it. “Designing admissions based only on this reform proposal is daunting,” he said, noting highly limited data on qualitative evaluation.

’No significant change’

However, some top tier universities see ‘no significant change’ as a result of the proposals.

Chun Myung-sun, director of admissions at Seoul National University (SNU), said at a press conference on 10 October that while the government’s university admissions reform plan addresses the issue of elective subjects, combines absolute and relative evaluations, strengthens common subjects, and enhances university autonomy, there would be little change in SNU’s admissions and student selection processes.

“With the decline in the school-age population, it is challenging for universities to secure outstanding talents. Many predict admission methods and evaluations will change significantly, but from the university’s perspective we will select top talents without much change, supporting the high school education system,” Chun explained.

“SNU does not simply select students based on high school grades or national exam scores. We assess whether the student has studied a subject in depth on their own,” Chun said. “If the reform is finalised within this year, SNU will decide on adjustments by the beginning of next year,” Chun added.

Criticisms from teaching unions

Several teachers’ unions criticised the proposals. The Practical Education Teachers’ Association said in a statement: “It seems the Ministry of Education has not adequately prepared a blueprint for the university entrance examination, which will be held for the first time after the full introduction of the (new) high school credit system.

“Since the implementation of the 40% regular admissions measure (since 2019) the number of students dropping out of high school or taking a gap year for admissions preparation has increased. It feels like they (this government) are merely sticking to the previous government's superficial fairness structure.”

One high school teacher said: “I hoped this government's reform would present a new opportunity. But when the plan was revealed, my first reaction was ‘why did they bother changing anything?’”

The Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations said: “Especially when maintaining the 9-tier college scholastic ability test while converting the internal system to a 5-tier relative grading system, the influence of the Suneung grows. This raises concerns about increased private education (cram school) costs and may further delay the transition to future education.”

The Korean Federation of Teachers’ Unions stated: “With the introduction of a 5-tier internal grading system, differentiation is decreased, and competition for raw scores on the Suneung may intensify.”

Confusion among students and parents

Confusion has intensified among students and parents since the government announcement. The private education and cram school market is bustling with seminars focused on the proposed university admission reforms.

With the removal of elective subjects from the national exams, allowing arts and humanities students to apply for science fields like medical schools, it is anticipated that foreign language and international schools, which operate with a humanities-centric curriculum, will become even more popular.

A representative of a major private academy stated: “This year’s 9th-grade students are the last batch for the unified national exams. If the 2028 admission reform, which applies to current 8th-grade students, undergoes significant changes, they might face the burden of retaking the national exams.

“Even if they decide to retake after entering a prestigious high school, they won't be at a disadvantage since the differentiation of the national exams has been enhanced. Naturally, these schools’ popularity will rise.”

A parent of a Grade 9 student said: “I don’t understand why the admission system is changed so frequently. Even when there’s no major change, as it becomes harder to get a grip on things, students and parents have no choice but to prepare for any changes in the private education market.”

The Ministry of Education plans to finalise the reform proposal after collecting opinions within this year. The final reform plan must pass the National Assembly by February next year to be confirmed.