Leader: A tiger with a real sting in its tail

South Koreans are obsessed with higher education and gaining global recognition. But success comes at a cost

December 9, 2010

Imagine lectures in which students burst into spontaneous applause. Difficult to believe? Welcome to university, South Korean style.

Higher education is at the heart of South Korean society. A turbulent past has produced a nation with the belief that anyone with ability can succeed through learning. This manifests itself in what is described as both "a mania for education" and a "pathological" attitude, and is most visible in the legendarily intense competition for a place at the country's elite universities. Demand is such that tuition fees account for most of the relatively high spend on higher education (2.4 per cent of gross domestic product), with the state contribution of 0.6 per cent similar to that of the UK - below the 1 per cent of GDP average across the nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The country's universities have fierce ambitions to make a noise worldwide, and the government supports their shift from a national to a global focus. Not content with their international standing, elite institutions want their global reputations to better reflect their academic achievements as well as their society and its formidable high-tech economic advances.

Although there are some scientific collaborations with the UK, South Korea has mostly looked to the US for its links - many of its academics having studied there - but the British Council is working hard to ensure that the UK can tap into South Korea's intellectual potential. And British academics working in South Korea on a state-funded recruitment drive are filled with praise for the "spectacular" quality of students and staff. Some believe that this kind of exchange can begin to shift South Korea's future academics into modes of critical analysis that have perhaps been undervalued in a culture of deference.

The proportion of graduates in South Korea is a remarkable 58 per cent, and its participation rate is well above that of the US and of the UK, which had been chasing a rate of 50 per cent. Despite the current government abandoning that aim, the Browne Review says there should be a 10 per cent rise in student numbers in the next three years. But whatever happens elsewhere, South Korea is not even drawing breath: its participation rate is set to storm ahead and is forecast to be the highest in the world by 2025 - 80 per cent.

But a robust participation rate is not in itself necessarily good news. Ha-Joon Chang, a South Korean economist at the University of Cambridge, cites his native country as a classic example of the "unhealthy dynamic" established in higher education in many high- and middle-income countries. Once enrolment hits a certain rate, he argues in our cover story, anyone who wants a decent job must have a degree. Higher education then risks becoming more about social classification - putting people into a hierarchy of employability - than about imparting knowledge. Chang says the problem has become particularly acute in South Korea. "In this system, you have the maximum incentive to do whatever you can to help your kid to get the right marks, the right department in the right university - after that you almost guarantee your child's future...Basically, you're spending too much money sorting between different people rather than improving them with better knowledge."

Other nations beware. The cost of earning stripes in a tiger economy can be high.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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