The Reality Behind Education in South Korea: An Exchange Student’s Perspective
Foreign Correspondent in South Korea, Milana Nikolova, unpicks the stereotype of the “hard-working” Korean student through her experiences studying at a Korean university.
There is a well-established stereotype about the South Korean education system in Western imagination. Long hours of studying and no rest. We are often exposed to such simplistic and even orientalist narratives about education in South Korea and other East Asian countries, that diminish rather than celebrate the successes of both individuals and whole societies.
Clichés of this kind have been firmly reinforced in the Western media. For example, the BBC One documentary “School Swap: Korea Style” gives three Welsh teenagers the chance to attend a Korean high school, but once there, they are seen struggling to keep up with the material and falling asleep in class. Meanwhile, their Korean counterparts are shown finishing the Welsh GSCE Maths exam in minutes and staying in the library until 11 pm. The fact that the three Korean high schools in the programme are some of Seoul’s top high schools located in the wealthy Gangnam district, and do not represent an accurate picture of all schools in the country, is barely ever mentioned. After being exposed to such ideas for a long time, it is needless to say that I was quite nervous about being able to keep up with Korean students while on my Study Abroad year. Thankfully, as with most realities of life, the truth about studying in South Korea turned out to be much more complex than the stereotypes will have you believe.
Thankfully, as with most realities of life, the truth about studying in South Korea turned out to be much more complex than the stereotypes will have you believe.
It is Friday night at Hongdae, one of Seoul’s major clubbing districts. From unique bars to roof top parties and flashy multi-story clubs, this place has it all. The streets are crowded with groups of young people, both from Korea and all over the world. Seemingly familiar late-night scenes that remind of London’s Soho or Shoreditch are all around. Koh Sooan, a second year International Studies student at EWHA University, tells me “There is so much pressure on Korean high school students to do well in their final exams, in order to secure a place at a high ranking university, that by the time they start university they are more than ready to go out and have fun.”
Other students agree, it is easier to be in university than in high school. Another second year student at the same university, who will be referred to as J, shares “I agree that the average Korean student studies too much, but it really depends on the individual and the university. EWHA is one of Korea’s top universities, so it makes sense for the people here to be hard-working. I feel satisfied with my work-life balance. Since I became a university student, I have more time of my own, I can learn what I really want to know, I can do what I want to do after class. I have time to teach math to high school and middle school students during the week and I exercise every day at the gym. I feel that I have a healthy balance between my university life and my time off.” Jeong Dahye, a Nursing student at EWHA prefers spending her free time differently, “My favourite thing to do after lectures is to enjoy a nice meal with my friends and then go drinking with them. My work-life balance is satisfactory.”
The different realities of Korean Students are varied and often contrasting to stereotypes, but where did these stereotypes come from in the first place? It is true that Koreans are some of the most highly educated people in the world. In terms of percentage of young people with tertiary education South Korea is an absolute outlier. According to OECD statistics, in 2018, 70 percent of South Koreans aged between 25 and 34 had a degree from a higher education institution. This number is noticeably higher than the U.K. average of around 50 percent and the OECD average of 44 percent. So why are so many Koreans not satisfied with just a high school diploma? “There is definitely a lot pressure to go to university coming from all corners of society, I personally don’t know a single person who hasn’t gone to university.”, Sooan tells me.
It is this seeming duty to move on to higher education and the subsequent requirement to do very well in high school that have likely created the stereotype of the diligent but over-worked Korean student. Both Sooan and J agree that, ironically, high school students tend to do more work than university students. The culmination of years of hard work at school is the Suneung, or the Korean CSATs, which the BBC News once referred to as an exam for which South Korean students “have been preparing their entire lives”. But even failing this is not the end of the world, while it might seem like it. “My high school life was just fun and no study. When the CSATs came around my results were unsatisfactory, and I was only accepted into one low (ranking) university that would not give me any job prospects. I went to school for two more years and tried really hard. My results got better, and I managed to get enrolled to EWHA,” says Dahye.
It is this seeming duty to move on to higher education and the subsequent requirement to do very well in high school that have likely created the stereotype of the diligent but over-worked Korean student.
Overall, it cannot be denied that the vast majority of students I have met at my Korean university are incredibly intelligent and hard-working people, but they are also unique individuals with varied interests, motivations and life experiences. It is in this way that Korean students are more similar to students at British universities than different. The same can perhaps be said about university students from all around the world. The tendency to over-generalise and stereotype can be dangerous even if the label in question appears to be positive, because it prevents us from seeing the complexity of individuals and appreciating their personal accomplishments. For this reason, opportunity to be immersed in a new culture and widen your understanding of it is certainly one of the greatest advantages of spending year studying abroad.