Ineffectual regulation and a desperate need for qualifications are fuelling corruption. Michael Fitzpatrick reports. South Korea's obsession with academic pedigree has exposed its higher education system to levels of fakery, fraud and exploitation rare in other developed countries.
Graduating from the right university, very often a foreign institution, can be the ticket to a successful and comfortable life. As a result, the pressures on South Korean teenagers are immense. Hundreds commit suicide every year because of fear of failing the exams needed to enter higher education. Thousands of others uproot themselves in pursuit of foreign degrees, which are generally perceived to be more prestigious than those awarded domestically.
Little wonder then, according to some commentators, that South Koreans look to loopholes, shortcuts and sometimes outright fraud to try to work the system.
"Titles count for a lot in Korea; academic titles even more. And academic titles from internationally renowned universities are perceived as the most prestigious and can by themselves be door-openers and career- openers," said Tariq Hussain, Korean education commentator and author of Diamond Dilemma: Shaping Korea for the 21st Century.
"Given this excessive focus on such titles, there is an incentive to bend the rules or even cheat. And occasionally these things are uncovered and lead to the downfall of the person involved."
An enthralled Korea has just witnessed the scandal arising from one such monumental rule-bending, namely the unmasking of a professor of art history as a fraud.
Shin Jeong-ah, who rose rapidly from gallery assistant to professor at Seoul's elite Dongguk University, was found to have invented her degrees, including a doctorate from Yale University and two lower degrees from the University of Kansas. She also claimed as her own work a plagiarised PhD thesis.
Unfortunately for Ms Shin, she rose too quickly in the eyes of some colleagues, and a whispering campaign prompted her employers to check her academic credentials more closely. They were all false. Ms Shin had barely completed her high-school studies.
Kim Kyung, a Seoul-based author and cultural commentator, observed: "I call our country the Republic of Forgery after Hwang Woo-Suk (caught falsifying research on cloning last year) and all the funny, fake luxury watches you see.
"To be honest, I feel sad and even stifled to live in a society where obsession with academic pedigree can easily drive one to crime."
"Few people realise that the real problem lies within the 'elites' who may actually have graduated from prestigious universities but (with qualifications) that are completely worthless."
Nevertheless, Ms Kim said, keeping up appearances, however illusory, is deemed important for staying ahead in Korean society. Ms Shin, whom she knows, took this maxim too far and is now under arrest and charged with faking degrees to obtain employment and with embezzling funds from a Seoul museum.
But the disgraced professor is not alone in taking such risks. There are more than 60,000 full-time professors in South Korea and, according to the Korea Research Foundation, about one in 30 has dubious qualifications.
The demand for academic qualifications, particularly from elite universities, is so great in South Korean life that those without a respected qualification can find themselves regarded as second-class citizens.
Profitable businesses have been built on supplying carefully crafted fraudulent documents to those keen to get on. Only periodically are their deceptions uncovered.
In the fallout from the Shin exposure, actors, officials and now even a famous teaching monk have been implicated in claims of fraud. Observers say that employers have moved to scrutinise employees' CVs and verify the authenticity of the academic qualifications they list.
Much breast-beating has followed in a country that feels it has done its best to establish and maintain a fair and honest education system.
To be admitted to university in South Korea, candidates must sit and pass an entrance exam. The exam is fact-based, which detractors claim leads to rote learning. The authorities say that fact-based exams reduce the potential for plagiarism and the subjective marking inherent in an essay- based test.
The rigorous entrance exams have helped preserve the domestic reputations of South Korea's universities even though they perform poorly in international league tables. But once students enter higher education the majority are guaranteed a pass - although the amount of work and the standard of degree awarded differs hugely between courses and universities.
"Academic standards in Korean universities tend to be lax," said one Seoul-based professor who declined to be named. "Students are often not expected to study at university, while cheating at all levels of the education process is all too common. Plagiarism is also rife, and teachers do little to stop it."
It has become part of the system that students do no work at college but they are, nevertheless, sure to graduate, according to Robert Koehler, a former South Korean university lecturer, journalist and foremost blogger on the country.
"Once you get into a good school, your life is set. It really doesn't matter what you do there; all that matters is the name of the school on the diploma once you get out. Colleges don't want to risk screwing up kids' lives for ever by failing them."
The South Korean Government made attempts at reform in the 1980s, demanding that universities introduce graduation quota systems, which would fail the lowest 30 per cent of students, but such demands proved unpopular. Standards, say some professors, are reflected in international standings. With not one Korean university listed among the world's top 100, South Korean parents and their children value study abroad.
"Maybe the best indicator of Korea's education crisis is the ongoing exodus of young Koreans," Mr Hussain said. "For every foreign student who comes to Korea, there are 18 Koreans leaving the country to study abroad. This is the worst ratio of any Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development country."
This exodus in search of "super" degrees overseas and the domestic bogus degree scandals have led some academics to speak out.
Jung Jin-soo, a professor of art at Sungkyunkwan University, recently told the national daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo that many degrees granted in Korea amounted to fakes.
"I have approved many poorly written dissertations. Masters and doctoral theses passed through the legitimate process are often also substandard," he said. "Graduate schools are bent on recruiting students, so they are lenient in approving theses.
"Most college professors are accomplices in this lenient screening. Seventy per cent of papers written by professors themselves, only to add to their resumes, are rubbish. They are assessed by colleagues who don't examine one another's work thoroughly."
The OECD has been scathing of South Korea's university system. In its latest report, it called on the Government to provide greater autonomy for universities and reduce the reliance on the state-run university entrance exam.
The South Korean Education Ministry has declined to comment.
A PENINSULAR PRIMER
- There are four main types of higher education institutions: regular four-year degree universities and colleges, two-year junior vocational colleges, four-year teachers' colleges and graduate schools.
- There are 50 national (public) universities, with this number set to be reduced to 35 within two years.
- More than 80 per cent (358) of South Korea's universities are private. The Government wants a 25 per cent cut in their number by 2009.
- Only 0.2 per cent of students in the country are foreign - the lowest percentage in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.
- There are 1.59 million students in tertiary education in South Korea, according to the OECD.
- Public expenditure per student in tertiary education is £3,470.