A new documentary has exposed the extreme pressure put on South Korean students to win entry to three of the country’s most prestigious universities.
“Reach for the Sky”, which premiered earlier this month, follows test takers as they prepare for the crucial Suneung exam.
To avoid disturbing examinees, the stock market opens late and planes are grounded, the film explains. Even the police are enlisted to make sure students get to the test centres on time.
But only a tiny fraction of test takers will achieve their goal – entrance to ‘SKY’, an acronym for Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University, seen as a gateway to a prestigious career and high social status.
In one scene, a student says: “I want to go to a good university. I don’t think studying is as important as going to a good university.”
Asked why, he responds: “It’s not my choice. All my life, society’s pushed me to go to a good university.”
In another, a female student says that “an educational system that only focuses on getting into university isn’t that bad. But studying until 11pm each night isn’t right, especially when you’re a teenager.”
There have long been concerns that the pressure to reach top universities in South Korea – which has one of the highest enrolment rates in the rich world – is bad for young people in the country. Some economists view the level of higher education in South Korea as unnecessary, and argue it has simply become an expensive sorting mechanism to assign people their place in society.
The documentary, which premiered at the Busan International Film Festival, was co-directed by the South Korean Choi Wooyoung and Belgian Steven Dhoedt.