Education in Korea

Posted on November 30, 2009

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Education in Korea is not just important, it is a number one priority for every individual. And there are several reasons for that. Firstly, the Korean society is still very influenced by Confucianism, which stresses the importance of education (it is almost shameful to be uneducated). Secondly, the competition in the Korean labour market is very intense and every grade, every course and every extra-curricular activity could influence one’s luck in finding a job. Some students might retake a course not because they did not pass it, but because they got a “bad” grade (for example an A- or a B), this way they try to reach an outstanding GPA and differentiate themselves.

By far the best thing you can do in Korea to increase your chances of being hired by a good company is to graduate form one of the top three universities (Seoul National, Korea or Yonsei). Naturally, competition to enter these universities is extremely tough. School students from the very young age are forced to put all of their efforts to prepare themselves for the graduation exams. After school, a lot of them go for private tutoring (or rather to private evening schools). It is not unusual to see children in school uniform and with a bag going home from such extra-curricular activities at 9 or 10 pm. English schools for small children are also extremely popular and there is a huge demand for English speaking teachers (most of them are young people from English speaking countries who come to Korea to teach for a year or a half). It seems that parents are prepared to go any lengths to make sure that their children get the best in education.

The most unusual thing for a westerner in the Korean education is the whole craze surrounding the school graduation exams. It seems that it is THE most important thing in a young person’s life – it decides their future. Some even commit suicide if they fail the exam (South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world). However, passing it means a bright future for many, especially for those who make it into a good university. The day when the graduation exam takes place affects the normal life in South Korea: some people have to go to work later than usual to make sure the transport system is not clogged up; no military exercises are allowed; some flights are cancelled or delayed and noise is not allowed near schools. In case a student is late for an exam, he can ask a police patrol to take him to school. In 2009, when I was in Korea, the media even reported that special exam classes were set up for students with H1N1 virus (it seems there is no way to retake the exam, so no matter what happens to you, you must take THE exam).

This habit of extreme competitiveness continues into the university years and I had a chance to experience it at Kyung Hee, where I was studying as an exchange student. Although it is not one of the top three universities (according to different rankings, it is between the fifth and seventh best universities in Korea), it has a lot of brilliant and competitive students.

I took courses in International Financial Management, Financial Derivatives, International Economics, Investments, Global Business and Marketing Strategy. Although I could choose from a variety of subjects I did not choose the easiest ones (it was my final year in the university and I felt I had a lack of knowledge in some fields). At the beginning it all seemed normal with some classes being more interesting than the others. Most of the courses were theory oriented, although there were some practical tasks, such as case studies and group presentations. However, I sometimes felt that the presentations were done just for the sake of it and teams seemed to compete more in presentation layouts than in the actual contents or presentation skills. Although the presenters were encouraging the class to ask questions, sometimes I felt to be the only one caring (or daring) to ask any and the presenters did not always manage to answer them (also because some of them lacked English skills).

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Our American finance professor sometimes showed up with a foreign national costume to teach us some cultural awareness

The real competition was not in the presentations or case-study analyses, it was in midterm and final exams. And this was where it really got different. There was no extra time to prepare for the exams and there were times when I had three exams in one day (in Vilnius university we usually had two or three days between the final exams; rarely two exams in one day). And some of the subjects were quite challenging, so I became somewhat nervous before and during the exam session. Korean students did not seem to have any problems with such workload. Some of them, weeks before the exams, would check out of the dormitory and spend their nights in the library next to the dormitory studying. They also had to go to the classes during the day (as I said, there was no extra time to prepare), so I have no idea when they slept. They had an immense pressure not just to pass, but also to get a good grade.

Of all the subjects I took I was really impressed with International Economics. The professor seemed to be an expert in his field and he put a lot of energy to explain everything in a very convincing and easy-to-understand manner. The popularity of this class is best described by the fact that finding a good place to sit was a challenge and some students used to come to the class half an hour before to reserve the front seats. For our International Financial Management and Financial Derivatives classes we had an American professor and he really stood out from all of the other professors in Kyung Hee, perhaps because his classes were closest to what I used to have in Europe and also because he was very helpful to foreign students (he organised us a lecture in Korean language, invited us for a Thanksgiving dinner and generally supported us throughout the semester).

During my stay in Kyung Hee I was lucky enough to witness the students’ president elections. There were at least four or five teams of two students (I guess a president and a vice president) running for the presidency. The election campaign lasted for quite some time and every team did its best to attract the attention and spread their message across. I do not know who funded the elections, because I thought quite a lot of money was spent, for example, huge banners were placed everywhere around campus with the faces and slogans of candidates. One candidate even had his own election newspaper dedicated for foreign students (it was in English, Chinese and Japanese). The election promises, however, were quite weak and reminded me of elections at my school in Lithuania, where one candidate proposed to build a basketball court on the roof of our school… On the day of the election, the candidates lined up near the entrance to the main building and greeted every person coming in by bowing down. They were standing there the whole day! I was amazed. It seemed that they took the election as seriously as they take their graduation exam.

I really enjoyed Kyung Hee for its campus in Seoul. It is located on a hilly landscape, so you would have to go up or down to get from one faculty to another. The campus has a dormitory (where I lived during my stay), a football field, an amphitheatre and another huge sports field, a huge library, an impressive “Global Peace Palace”, which looks like a church in Europe, separate buildings for separate faculties (colleges), two huge canteens, a complex of small shops, a bookstore and a bank, a lot of ATM’s and even its own souvenir shop! Right outside the campus, there were countless small restaurants, where we usually had our dinner for merely 4000-6000 wons.  The metro station (Hoegi) was located just a 10 minute walk from the campus, allowing a quick transfer to any part in Seoul.

Kyung Hee Campus (Source: Bing maps)

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Amphitheatre and part of the Business management faculty, where I had most of my classes

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Kyung Hee library

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The administration building (in front) and the “Global Peace Palace” (behind)

Kyung Hee 094A busy street outside the campus

The dormitory stood out for its strict gender-separation policy. No male was allowed to enter a female floor and vice versa. Cheating was impossible, because there was a CCTV camera just around every corner. Breaking this rule would guarantee you being kicked out of the dormitory immediately. There was a curfew hour in the dormitory between midnight and 5AM, those who wanted to leave had to sign out stating a reason. There were a few surprise checks to see if this rule was being followed.

And perhaps the strangest part of the dormitory was in the basement, where separate laundry facilities for guys and girls were located (although it was right next to each other separated only by a plastic screen). Even if all washing machines in the girls section were empty and all the machines in the guys room were occupied, I was still not allowed to use them! The dormitory, in the eyes of a westerner, was a kindergarten and certainly not a place where adults were supposed to live. I do not know the exact reasons for it, but I am quite sure there is a reasonable explanation. I have heard, for example, that parents in South Korea are quite strict and they sometimes call the dormitory to check upon their son or daughter. Again, education is more important than anything else, so young Koreans are expected to study hard instead of wasting their time on other things.

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Sehwawon dormitory, where I lived

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Posted in: Korea