SEOUL - Seoul National University held its graduation ceremony on Wednesday and presented honour student awards for those who finished with grade point averages higher than 3.6 out of 4.3.
In a bizarre twist, however, the number of honour students nearly equaled the number of ordinary students, with the former accounting for 44 per cent of the 2,591 graduates. The percentage of honour students at the country's top university has increased by more than 10 per cent in just three years.
An SNU official said it was "grade inflation," in which an abnormally large number of students end up graduating with honors.
Such high GPAs are a reflection of Korean students' obsession with getting higher grades. In a country dragged down by tepid economic growth, a high GPA is considered an essential qualification for landing a job.
"In the job market, the very basic quality of applicants is their college grade. Colleges, on the other hand, want more of its students to get hired in order to receive higher evaluation from the government," Yang Jung-ho, a professor of education at Sungkyunkwan University, told The Korea Herald. "Their corresponding interests gave birth to the practice of 'course credit laundering.'"
Most Korean universities allow students to retake courses if they are not satisfied with their grades. Students repeatedly take the same courses until they receive top grades, effectively "laundering" their report cards with high grades. This forces some students to attend college for five or even six years.
Another form of laundering is the so-called "report card for job seekers," which omits the lowest "F" grades. Naturally the grades and the total GPA on this special report card appear higher than the actual academic achievement of students, giving them an edge in the job market.
According to data revealed by Saenuri lawmaker Kim Hee-jung at last year's parliamentary audit, at least 75 per cent of colleges in Korea issue these "F"-free report cards. As a result, many students having trouble in classes ask their professors for an "F," rather than "D," "C," or even "B."
In December, the Education Ministry sought to end the custom of course credit laundering. Working with the Korean Council for University Education, the ministry told all colleges to come up with a plan to eliminate the practice of issuing report cards that hide failing grades.
"The ministry had been discussing the issue of so-called grade inflation, but we had difficulty grasping the full extent of the problem. The parliamentary audit gave us the final nudge," said an official from the Education Ministry.
She said each college is to come up with its own measures to eradicate grade laundering and alert the ministry of the changes by March. If the ministry decides the plans are ineffective, it will take matters into its own hands and the schools will be subject to punishment.
SNU introduced a plan that restricts professors from giving out "A+" grades to students retaking classes, effective from 2015. An SNU official said that students repeatedly retaking courses waste their time studying identical curriculums. In addition, students taking the course for the first time can be put at disadvantage.
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies announced on Feb. 4 it will no longer issue separate report cards for job seekers.
Some schools, such as Korea University, said they will discontinue a system that allowed students to relinquish credits for a certain number of courses in which they receive low grades. Kyunghee University reduced disposable credits from 12 to six for the upcoming semester and plans to abolish the system altogether.
The new plans ran into fierce opposition from students, especially seniors who berated the schools for abolishing the system at the cost of their grades.
"There is no guarantee that all schools will abolish the dual report card system. What if our school ends up being one of the few who follows the government policy and we (students) end up being at a disadvantage in the job market?" said a 25-year-old senior at a Seoul-based university.
Schools like HUFS chose to grant a grace period for the rule change, after being bombarded by a series of protests from its student council.
Even those who accepted the new policy decried the schools for changing it without consulting the students.
"We thought it was wrong for the school to unilaterally revise the rules without even asking our opinions," Choi Jong-un, the president of the Korea University Student Union, said. He said although the union decided the rule change was the right thing to do overall, students' point of views should have been reflected.
Despite the student union accepting the new policy, he said it is still facing opposition from many other students.
"These students are worried about their grades. The (credit disposal system) was a safety measure in case they messed up," Choi said.
Professor Yang said the efforts by universities may not be enough to get rid of the widespread grade laundering.
He said companies should take a bigger role by making it clear that they will work to establish a competence-based job market. Rather than pick students with good grades from prestigious schools, the companies should hire people who are best prepared to do the jobs that they are paid to do.
"Instead of the government just ordering and colleges following, the companies need to convey a message that they will hire new employees based on their ability," Yang said. "If they do so, students won't be so hung up on grades. We can't just tell schools and students to change and expect the problem to be solved."