The involvement of a university in a corruption scandal engulfing South Korean politics has highlighted the problems of the country’s hyper-competitive higher education system, according to a UK-based scholar of the region.
In a political scandal currently dominating headlines in the country, Park Guen-hye, the nation’s president, has been accused of being subject to the influence of her confidante Choi Soon-sil.
Ms Choi, who has no official position or security clearance, is alleged to have been given access to sensitive information and has been accused of using her position to extort large sums of money from companies for personal gain.
Meanwhile, an investigation has found that a prestigious private university gave preferential treatment to Ms Choi's daughter.
Chung Yoo-ra, a member of the national dressage team, enrolled at Ewha Womans University in 2015, soon after the university expanded its list of sports eligible for preferential treatment to include equestrian sports. Despite minimal attendance and late submissions, Ms Chung received good marks, following a recently introduced internal regulation favouring the grades of students showing athletic or artistic ability.
The South Korean Ministry of Education dispatched a team to Ewha and found that Ms Choi’s daughter had been given preferential treatment. It has now demanded that her admission to the university is cancelled. Additionally, a Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education investigation delivered the verdict that at high school, Ms Chung had been “widely granted special treatment”.
“Corruption among high-profile politicians is wide, but education figures such as university presidents have been believed [to be] clean,” said Jaeho Kang of the Centre for Korean Studies at Soas, University of London.
Ewha’s previously unblemished reputation took its first hit earlier this year when plans to establish a college of continuing education at the university resulted in mass demonstrations by students. Following further protests by students and staff over the allegations that Ms Chung received favourable treatment, Ewha’s president Choi Kyung-hee stepped down, in the first such case in the institution’s 130-year history.
Given the extreme pressure South Korean students face to gain entry to prestigious universities such as Ewha, it is unsurprising that allegations of admissions procedures being manipulated have provoked such anger.
Most school students attend hagwon, institutions offering private tuition in preparation for high school and university entrance exams. In an effort to reduce the intensity of study, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education limits study at hagwon to between 5am and 10pm, although this curfew is often ignored.
“For Korean students and their families, the hyper-competitive university admission process is one of the most crucial issues, which decides later social mobility,” said Dr Kang. “That’s why the corruption scandal at Ewha Womans University [has prompted] shock.”
South Korea’s rigid educational system – in which exam results determine the trajectory of a young person’s life – has rapidly transformed it into one of the best educated countries in the world, but it has its costs.
Parents spend hundreds of dollars per month on extra tuition for each child, and the country’s suicide rate – the second highest in the world – has been attributed to this high-pressure system.
“The government’s increasing pressure and control of universities, and the rapid commercialisation of the college system, have accelerated the higher education crisis in Korea,” said Dr Kang. “The hierarchical structure of higher education is the fundamental problem.”