Yerim Kim, a high school sophomore in Seoul, is anxious.
Just one year away from taking the most important exam of her life, the 17-year-old’s battle plan has been thrown into uncertainty, ironically, by a government measure intended to alleviate students’ stress and relieve parents’ spending on education.
Last week, the South Korean government announced the removal of “killer questions”—questions not covered in the classroom—from the Suneung, a notoriously grueling college entrance test also known as the Korean SAT.
“I feel worried [about] its potential consequences on my future,” Kim tells TIME. “The Korean SAT is based on relative evaluation, and dumbing down the questions will definitely result in an unwelcome outcome, especially for high-achieving students.”
The move is the latest step taken in a decades-long initiative to crack down on the country’s booming private education industry. Despite a decline in the student population last year, national spending on private education soared to a record 26 trillion won ($20 billion) in South Korea, the most expensive country in the world to raise a child. Uncoincidentally, South Korea also has the world’s lowest birth rate, which has sparked grave concerns for its economy.
As a demographic crisis looms, authorities are taking aim at the country’s hagwons, or “cram schools”—for-profit tutoring institutions attended by some 80% of Korean students. There are more than 24,000 hagwons located just in Seoul—triple the number of convenience stores in the city.
But decades of reforms have only exacerbated the systemic reliance on hagwons, and experts and students tell TIME that the recent measures similarly fail to tackle the root of Korea’s education problems, which are fueled by a wider culture of competition stemming in large part from the country’s imbalanced labor market.
“It’s difficult to prepare for school exams on your own when hagwons provide abundant study material that you would otherwise be unable to obtain,” says Kim, who attends one herself. “The fact that everyone else is attending hagwons makes me feel like I’m missing out on something if I don’t.”
And while the new policy on “killer questions” is meant to make the tests easier, it has only unnerved thousands of high school students like Kim—along with their deeply invested parents and teachers—seeking to stand out in the eyes of top-tier universities and prospective employers down the line.
“It’s like treating the symptoms, not the disease,” Kim says. “Education will always be overheated in Korea unless the emphasis on credentials is alleviated.”
Determinant of success
But these have done little to curb the fixation on getting a good score in the Suneung, the eight-hour exam viewed across the country as the single most important determinant of a person’s success in life.
On the day of the Suneung, usually set in November, the entire country operates on heightened alert as half a million students take their seats in the exam; planes are grounded to keep noise levels down, local businesses and the stock market open later than usual, and police are tasked to escort students who are running late. Meanwhile, parents and grandparents flock to temples to pray for good test scores.
Every Suneung season, about 20% of test takers are those retaking the exam to get a spot in their dream universities—often narrowed to an Ivy League-esque list of highly-rated universities located in Seoul.
“Some individuals may feel that there is no point in graduating from other universities. This is what society believes,” Ty Choi, a professor at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies who researches the impacts of private tutoring, tells TIME.
“This is highly associated with what success means in Korea. You want to have a stable life. Stable life means getting employed in a chaebol company,” he adds, a reference to the large, often family-run, conglomerates that dominate the South Korean economy. These companies hire almost exclusively from the country’s top three universities, and for most of South Korea’s brightest students, it’s chaebol or bust.
“This is a whole societal problem,” says Choi. “You put a Band-Aid, and it seems like it’s fixed. It’s not like that. The problem is intertwined through various parts of Korean society.”
Sonia Exley, an associate professor in the department of social policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, tells TIME that “the root problems lie beyond education policy, really.” She points to South Korea’s degree of “polarization in labor markets” as the real culprit.
“There are limited numbers of jobs with the top companies. High-quality employment is hard to achieve and it’s extremely competitive,” Exley explains. “That kind of has trickle-down effects back to the education system. What you see is people very much desperately trying to get into top universities so they can get one of those top jobs.”
Yet, as families in South Korea take on tremendous financial burdens to pay the hefty costs of private education, the investments they hope to make in their children’s future aren’t necessarily paying off in today’s labor market. An increasing number of young adults, dissatisfied with the lack of opportunities commensurate with their degrees, have given up looking for work altogether. A government survey in June recorded 357,000 people in their twenties who were unemployed and not actively seeking jobs, an 11% increase from last year.
Education reforms of the past have hardly reduced academic competitiveness, instead rattling parents and students and sending them further into the arms of hagwons they believe hold the key to getting ahead. The recent round of measures is expected to result in similar effects on the ground.
“[Parents] know that this exam has been made easier in various ways, but therefore they go: ‘How do I now get a place for my child? How do I now make sure my child will end up in one of those universities?’” says Exley. “It doesn’t solve the fact that there is a huge demand for reputable universities but not enough places.”
“What you’ve historically seen in Korea is that over time, that uncertainty that is produced by parents, the private tutoring industry responds to that, and they find new ways to help support parents in this type of uncertainty,” she adds.
Hagwons have long provided a sense of security to parents and students who are facing nerve-wracking exam preparations, like Matthew Lee, a high school student in Daegu who plans to take the Suneung later this year,
“When the curriculum changes, my hagwon teachers always analyze what’s the change, and predict how that change would contribute to changes in the Korean SAT,” he tells TIME.
This dynamic, however, has proven detrimental to the health of many students, who find themselves bearing an ever-increasing weight of academic pressure and expectation. According to Lee, students have grown accustomed to the dog-eat-dog education system, but that doesn’t make it any easier to participate in.
“We are taught by our parents or teachers to excel more than others. Like, the classmate sitting right next to you is your enemy in terms of academics,” he says. “The pressure or ambiance that hagwon naturally creates is quite overwhelming for most of us. But at the same time, the paradox is that we know that we have to go to hagwons in order to keep up with the fast-paced classes and to prepare for the Korean SAT in the end.”
The emphasis on grades can sometimes prove too much for South Korean middle and high schoolers, one in three of whom have reported experiencing suicidal thoughts due to academic stress.
Students like Lee trapped in this rat race wish the government would take a more holistic view of the problem, rather than trying to tweak just one component of a broken system.
“Instead of blaming hagwons,” says Lee, “they should really focus more on what’s fundamentally wrong, and how students are feeling about this one single exam—eight hours in their entire life—determining the trajectory of their entire life.”
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