Will elitist college system meet its demise?

Will elitist college system meet its demise?

With progressive candidates winning the majority of education chief positions in the June 4 elections, they were in a good position to promote their philosophy of less competition and equal learning opportunity for students.

As part of their mission, the left-leaning superintendents vowed a thorough revamp of the existing college system to form a public higher education network that eliminates disparity in entrance scores between state-run colleges.

The network will include Seoul National University, the country's top-rated higher education institute, and allow whoever passes the national certification exam to enter any state-run colleges.

The herculean nature of the task - which would include persuading the Education Ministry and schools themselves - notwithstanding, many experts lauded their efforts as the elitist college system has long been the subject of criticism.

It has been blamed for promoting excessive competition that undermines the true purpose of education. Another problem is that the reputation of one's diploma often has a lasting impact on his or her life.

Wayward college entrance system

One recurring criticism concerns the college entrance system.

In order to go to a prestigious college, a student needs to get a high score on the annual entrance exam Suneung. To get a high score, one needs to spend hours upon hours on rote learning that is largely deprived of creative thinking.

"During my time at a university, a lot of professors told me addressing the students was like 'talking to dolls.' When asked to state their opinions, they all keep their mouths shut," said Jang Hwi-kook, the recently reelected education chief for Gwangju. "This is because the students are used to a method of studying that is based on simple memorization of facts."

Hardly anyone can deny that Korean students work hard.

The education fever in Korea has earned plenty of admirers outside the country, including US President Barack Obama. A recent report from the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development showed that the country had the third-highest rate of education expenditure per GDP among all OECD countries.

But the report also showed that Korea topped the list of private education expenses. The majority of private institutes in Korea are custom-designed to help students get high scores in tests, which is their selling point.

"The current evaluation system is less about teaching and more about lining them up in the order of their scores," said Lee Bohm, a former education policy adviser for former Seoul education chief Kwak No-hyun. The easiest way to do it is to test them on how well they memorize the facts, he said.

"Private institutes know very well how to deal with such tests. This means private education will continue to thrive."

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