The “Over-Education” of Korea

Excellent article from the Financial Times about Korea’s inefficient education system and how it ties into Korea’s economy and society.

Here are some slices:

South Korea has some of the world’s most over-educated bakers. In one class in Seoul teaching muffin and scone-making, there are graduates in Russian, fine art and animation. For South Korean parents, the world’s highest spenders on their children’s education, something is going horribly wrong.


Over-education has become a crippling financial drain on Asia’s fourth biggest economy. South Korean families mire themselves in debt and burn more than 3 per cent of gross domestic product on night schools and crammers dedicated exclusively to passing formulaic university entrance examinations.


To combat these weaknesses in the system, South Korea has launched “Meister schools” hoping to train master craftsmen in the German model. Under a pilot scheme, there are 21 such schools, increasing to 50 by 2012.

I think the idea of developing “master craftsman” trade association and school systems, like Germany, is very interesting.

  • rockon

    Lanching a trade school system sounds good in theory. But there are a few technical and soco-cultural barriers to overcome. F

  • rockon

    Lanching a trade school system sounds good in theory. But there are a few technical and socio-cultural barriers to overcome. First, these schools require competent, technically accomplished educators. Are these people ready to work for a teacher’s wage? Second, the German trade school system (in my limited experience) requires significant effort on the part of the student. Much more effort than the kids in Korea who sleep through technical high school and then nap their way through to graduation in their bush university program. Then, there are the parents. The stigmna of not attending university. Ah, there’s the rub.

  • beatnix

    One of the problems in SK faces is the disappearance and outsourcing of well paying blue collar jobs.
    Many developed nations like Japan and US face similar problems. Even if these jobs existed a well educated workers are reluctant to do them.

  • Granfalloon

    A friend of mine completed a thesis a couple of years ago on higher education in Korea from a globalized (but not comparative) perspective. His conclusions? Clusterfuck.

    Many of the students at universities I’ve taught at go on to do jobs that would have been trade school occupations in other countries. I wouldn’t saying fixing cars is easy, but nobody needs a four year degree to do it (let alone fixing scooters or bicycles). Worse still are the majors created simply to let more students into the school: bodyguards, fire prevention, etc.

    So, I see this move to trade schools as a very good thing . . . except universities, already hurting from a population dip, are not gonna be happy when they start losing students to these schools. Of course, I have little sympathy for them. Serves ’em right, charging kids four years of tuition just to make personal fitness trainers out of them.

  • hoju_saram

    Agree with rockon.

    There’s too much of a stigma against manual workers – even highly skilled ones – in Korea for trade schools to be popular. They also get paid a pittance.

  • tambe

    That’s nice. Korea cares about education.

    In America, we care about race, and nothing else. It is killing us.

  • beatnix

    that reminds me of the backlash obama got when he asked the parents of america to get more involved in their childrens education like the koreans.

  • non korean

    Good in theory. The problem is many of the trade jobs are closed shop unions. The kind that you must be part of the union to work in that field. They cut off the number of workers who can be certified to work at that job in order to keep competition for the jobs to a minimal and artificially raise their wages and everybody’s payment for their services. Oh and the extra wages they do earn go back into the union and left leaning politicians that use our tax money to bail out Union pension funds. See aren’t unions wonderful! Nevermind, I’m talking about the US not Korea. Yea maybe it would work in Korea if some people could get over the stigma here about blue-collar jobs.

  • twinkieeyes

    At first I wanted to say something like, “Oh good, then we could have more bakers and pastry makers!” just to be cute. But what if they did some Kdrama that glorifies tradesmen, like a blue-collar “Coffee Prince”? I think they could actually make it somewhat acceptable then. Maybe.

  • Canarias

    It was just this week that I saw an article titled something like, “Is the Era of Cheap Chinese Labor Over?”
    Where to then, and where will Koreans and Westerners stand when the non-returning pendulum has swung that far?
    Anyhow, “over-educated”, how about “under-socialized”?
    Pay attention to the poise in Korea’s collective reaction when Argentina, the once-proud land of Borges and El Che, hands them their asses tomorrow night on the pitch. The likely lack thereof will show just how much education does here.
    All the while Argentines, now clinging to wheat and soy like lifelines (as well as sadly drifting towards industrial farming) will ponder life and slowly sip on el mate, as their economic glory is long gone.

  • RollingWave

    Then again, one of my middle school classmates (yes i’m from Taiwan but the system and social perception is extremely similiar) basically just went to work at a old name factory after graduating from junior high (part time at first then full time), and he’s basically made more money than among any of other classmates I’ve had from middle school to college (with the exception of those inheriting busniess). and those include people who are now working in world famous Taiwanese IT industries, and those who are working in financial industries.

    In Taiwan though, schools are catching up a bit, most of the technical school system are offering apprentiship and / or real job opportunity. to create competition within an otherwise throughly uncompetitive system.

    Still, similar problems persists. the pull towards college diploma, no matter how worthless, still seem stronger than learning a real trade.

    Hey I guess in this you really can blame Confucious 😛

  • guitard

    @5: A Korean friend of mine repairs and installs air conditioners/heaters. On a good day in the summer, he earns close to a million won. Typically, he works 12 hour days, seven days a week during the summer.

    Unfortunately, a lot of his hard earned money goes toward cram schools, etc. for his kids.

  • keius

    There’s always a cultural stigma associated with these kind of jobs. It’s not just Korea that’s got this issue. It’s everywhere. In the US, we have bankers making 40k a year. We have truck drivers making 100k+ a year. Who do you think get’s more respect? The problem is that Koreans and Asians in general tend to put too much importance in “Face”.

    Honestly though, trade schools are a good idea. How well the population will embrace it is another thing. “Face” has such a huge impact not just with regards to financial prospects, but also marriage and everything else you can think of. Will parents choose to push their children towards universities knowing they won’t be “elite” but will a decent social status? Or will they choose to push kids towards these master trade schools with lower social status but 2-3x’s the earning potential (and less debt)?

  • Korean Psycho

    Gotta agree with keius, this face thing is a menance to Asian male everywhere.

    But then, this is Asia, where the number of students is much larger than West.

  • DLBarch

    Of all the pathologies that a country can suffer from, I’d say too much education is pretty much near the bottom of the list. Is there even a word for “over-education” in Korean? “Gwakyoyuk” doesn’t sound at all right.

    Come to think of it, I don’t think there’s a work for “over-education” in Hebrew either. Maybe Yiddish. Oy!


  • jefferyhodges

    This is cheating, but . . . “אָווערעדוקאַטיאָן”? Yiddish . . . but could work in Hebrew as well.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  • sumo294

    You guys are all missing the point. All women in general detest blue collar labor–women will take a pay cut to avoid doing heavy hands on work. Only a truly desperate woman will do work normally associated with big burly men. For example, how much would need to pay women in order to secure a large number of workers to be dock workers–lifting large boxes–all day long? Trade schools will impact some of issues of male employment, but Korean women especially from middle class neighborhoods will refuse blue collar labor positions of any kind–what-so-ever.

  • RollingWave

    I dunno about Korea, but here in Taiwan there is a fair share of women in the construction biz.