Education reform has been one of President Moon’s key promises as a presidential candidate, and he has selected long-time education reform advocate Sang-kon Kim as his Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education. However, in its current form, the Ministry of Education (MOE) is yet to be complete, as there are several key positions that are still vacant. Nonetheless, following the president’s campaign promises, the MOE has been in the works of developing several new policies.
One of the biggest issues in education discussed today is the existence of specialized high schools. From autonomous high schools that are free to set their own curriculums and academic systems to science high schools that have curriculums heavily based in math and science, Korea has amassed almost a hundred of these schools. These specialized private schools were first created for academic diversity, but they slowly began to cater to the wealthy as the benefits of advanced courses and English-based curriculums allowed students to apply to prestigious universities not only in Korea but also abroad. Thus, these institutions of secondary learning are now considered to be “elite”, only accepting advanced students who have the financial means to learn ahead by attending pricey hagwons and can afford to pay the expensive tuition fees.
Naturally, over the years, these schools have drawn much criticism for creating unequal opportunities for students. During Former President Myung-bak Lee’s administration, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education had attempted to remove the special status of five autonomous schools in 2015, but was overridden by the then conservative MOE. And although Seoul’s Education Superintendent recently announced that the five schools will retain their special rights after a reevaluation this year, he pointed out that this extension would be merely temporary, as Korea looks to change the law entirely. Now that the MOE and the government are headed by anti-elitist, egalitarian leaders, Seoul, as well as other provinces, is expected to see major overhauls in this special-school system.
Last month, the MOE announced plans to remove the “priority selection” process, which is a system where the 46 autonomous high schools, 31 foreign language schools, seven international schools, and other specialized schools in Korea select their students from middle schools earlier than regular high schools. These specialized schools begin their admissions processes in August, months earlier than regular schools, and those who do not get accepted can apply to regular high schools without any penalties. This means that all the academically well-to-do middle school students apply to specialized schools in August, knowing full well that if they are not accepted, they can simply apply again to regular schools a bit later in the year.
However, this policy change, if ratified, would remove this privilege and force all schools to begin their admissions processes at the same time. Thus, without the safety of a regular application process, students will no longer be able to apply twice, once to each of the two groups of schools. This will decrease the number of students applying to specialized schools and eventually result in a more academically balanced spectrum of schools. In addition, the MOE hopes that this will be the first step towards creating a smooth transition as the government works to remove the special status entirely, turning all specialized schools into regular schools. The MOE plans to enforce this policy early next year, after modifying the Education Decree of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the fourth quarter of 2017.
Another major policy announcement was the plan to expand the high school credit system already in operation at some schools in the country. This system essentially functions as a university credit system whereby students first complete some basic required courses in their freshmen year and then are free to take any courses from the wide range of available specialties. The MOE is working to integrate this system into most high schools by the start of next year.
The MOE also tackled the cost of universities in Korea, and the link between tertiary education and employment. The ministry declared that future policy initiatives would aim to expand higher vocational education and make all public universities tuition-free.
All of the aforementioned issues have been dealt with in one way or another by every administration that has taken power over the years. Due to this rapidly changing landscape of education legislation, the current MOE has decided to create an advisory body called the National Education Conference, led by a civilian expert and composed of a mix of public officials from several ministries and civilians. This advisory panel will serve to plan out the long-term direction of education policymaking and will be operational until it is replaced by an independent body called the National Education Committee in 2019, which will exist for the same purpose.
The Moon administration has put forth a number of ambitious reforms for education, most of which are not in effect yet. There are a lot of finer details to be worked out and criticisms are ever-present. For instance, the College Scholastic Aptitude Test (CSAT), or Suneung, has been put on the back burner, and the government has yet to provide a satisfactory solution to the private elementary school teachers’ strike. But this administration, still riding high on public support, seems to be set on enacting broad, sweeping reforms across all platforms, not just education. Let’s hope for the best.