South Korea launches Covid crackdown before entrance exam

Experts say the crisis should have been used as a good opportunity to rethink a notoriously stressful assessment system

November 28, 2020
Man wearing a mask with the South Korean flag
Source: iStock

South Korea’s education minister, Yoo Eun-hae, has pleaded for the nation to “halt all daily social activities for the next week...cancel meetings and private gatherings”, as part of a recently announced Covid crackdown to cover the two-week run-up to the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT).

The test, also called the “suneung”, will be taken by about 500,000 students on 3 December and has already been postponed from its original date in November.

Health minister Park Neung-hoo had earlier called on the country to “help students take the national college entrance exam safely”. In-person classes at high schools will be suspended for a week, any “cram school” reporting a Covid infection will be outed publicly and mass gatherings and events will be limited.

The nation of 50 million has had just over 500 Covid deaths in total and is reporting about 500 new infections a day.

During the eight-hour test, students will be required to wear masks and will be placed behind plastic screens. Hospital spots and special facilities will be set up so that even students in quarantine can sit the exam.

Korea experts said the Covid measures were in keeping with the strict practices enacted for the suneung in past years, when even office hours and flights were rescheduled to create a perfectly quiet environment for test-takers.

Terri Kim, a professor of comparative higher education at the University of East London and an academic visitor at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, told Times Higher Education that she was “not surprised” to hear of the exam-related crackdown.

“Such fervent interest and heavy investment in CSAT, at both the national and individual level, are not uniquely Korean, but maybe [there are] similar, common features in other East Asian countries with a Confucian heritage,” she said.

Nationwide measures were taken, for example, during China’s gao kao exam in July. 

David Tizzard, an assistant professor in Korean studies at Seoul Women’s University, told THE that “the Covid pandemic has been a perfect opportunity for the Korean government to rethink society’s attitudes towards this test”.

“Rather than placing such a terrible burden and stress on the young students (whose main cause of death remains suicide because of academic pressures), this could have been a great time to rethink how the test is carried out and devise new methods and pathways into higher education more in line with current standards, methodologies and societal issues,” he said.

Dr Tizzard described the exam as “primarily multiple choice and rote memorisation. There is little in the way of critical thought required. Moreover, with the tests all on a single day, the pressure is immense to perform well.” 

He explained that the HE sector was dominated by the top three universities known collectively as SKY: Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University.

“Graduates from these three universities have a lot more opportunities open to them based on their alma mater more than anything else,” he said.  

Stephanie Kim, faculty director of higher education administration at the Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies, described the suneung as a “‘one-chance exam’ that has an outsized influence on a student’s future”.

“A student’s score determines where that individual can attend college, which in turn greatly determines a student’s chances of economic prosperity,” she told THE.

“College graduates in South Korea primarily attain jobs through tightly knit alumni networks that help to usher in younger peers from the same college – in the short-term and throughout a lifetime,” she said. “And at a time when youth unemployment is so rampant, a student’s education pedigree (hakbeol) becomes that much more consequential to one’s upward mobility.”

Dr Kim said that the government tried to introduce policies to “relieve pressures” around the exam about a decade ago. However, “following some high-profile scandals where this admissions pathway was abused, the South Korean government has begun to backpedal on these policies and return to emphasising the exam as the primary method of college admission”. 

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