The university entrance examination system across East Asia might once have been needed to allocate scarce university slots. But even with expanded college enrollment, and more slots, the competition to get into higher-ranked universities is destroying the lives of young people and their families in countries such as South Korea and Japan.
On Thursday, 600,000 South Korean high school seniors were scheduled to take the brutal university entrance exam, which many had been preparing for since primary school. The results will shape the rest of their lives, their jobs and even their marriages. The stress is such that the suicide rate among young people up to age 24 rose to 9.4 per 100,000 in 2010, a nearly 50 percent increase from 2000.
In South Korea, where more than 70 percent of high school graduates enter university, education is a national obsession that the government worries is actually damaging society. Education accounted for nearly 12 percent of consumer spending last year, and parents spent the equivalent of 1.5 percent of GDP on cram schools for their children. There are now more cram school instructors in South Korea than regular schoolteachers, and the exams are so difficult that even college professors admit they could not pass them.
Excessive spending on education in South Korea accounts in significant part for the 45 percent poverty rate among the elderly, who cannot save for retirement because they have spent so much of their money on educating their children.
The paradox is these ridiculous tests don’t necessarily lead to demanding college classes. In Japan, where almost all college students graduate, it’s quite common for students to be asked only to parrot back lecture notes. Rigorous thinking, reading and writing too often is simply not expected. Doing away with rigid entrance exams is just the first step. What needs to be debated is the quality of education once the students are admitted.
New York Times