South Korea's wasted youth
- 9 November 2011
- From the section Business
There are not many excuses for turning up late to South Korea's national college entrance exam.
The most important day in a student's life, it determines which university - if any - each of them will go to and, by extension, what their future salary and status is likely to be.
And to ensure its students have the best possible chance, for one day every year Korea changes its aircraft flight schedules, holds up the morning rush-hour, and even discourages the military from moving outside its bases.
South Korea's education system is held up as a model around the world.
Some 80% of its high-school students now go on to further education.
But according to South Korea's president, that academic success is creating its own "social problem" - a youth unemployment rate of 6.7% in October, more than twice the national average, even as parts of the labour market are hungry for workers.
"Because there are so many people graduating from university at the moment, and looking only for high-end jobs, there's a mismatch between the job-hunters, and the positions available," explains Kim Hwan Sik, director of vocational training at the Education Ministry.
The problem began with mass lay-offs after the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, he says.
When companies began hiring again, they found a glut of graduates willing to fill entry-level positions, putting pressure on all school-leavers to get a degree.
So these days, applicants' skills often fail to match employers' needs, according to Mr Kim. In addition, Korea loses years of much-needed earnings while they study.
Recipe for success?
Koo Woonmo, 17, is doing things differently. He has already decided he wants to become a chef.
So rather than spend his school years cramming for the university entrance exam, he is learning practical skills at a specialist culinary high school.
Today's lesson: red bean noodles.
"My mum and dad didn't want me to go to this school, because in Korean culture men aren't supposed to cook in the kitchen," he says.
"People said 'Don't go', but I wanted to. I don't want to be a normal student. I don't want to work that hard."
It is quite normal for school children in South Korea to spend 14 hours a day studying for the college entrance exam - sometimes for years on end.
Parents often spend up to half the family's income on private tuition to help their off-spring beat the competition.
These days, the government would rather have more students who think like Woonmo and opt for vocational training.
But even at Woonmo's vocational high school, half the students currently go on to higher education.
The head teacher here, Min-oo Sohn, says the school is coming under pressure from the government to reduce that number. But it is a policy he fears will create a two-tier system.
"I personally feel this is going to increase polarisation between those who go to university and those who go to vocational schools," he said.
"And by trying to draw a line - when these students are just teenagers - over whether they want to go to university or not, it's making those decisions more rigid."
The government says it is well aware of the problems facing students who skip university.
"If someone straight out of high school is treated with less respect or financial return than a graduate, who on earth would want to take that route?" the education ministry's Kim Hwan Sik says.
"There needs to be a recognition that four years of experience on the job is equal to a degree.
"First the government needs to set a model example for employers, so that public institutions don't discriminate against high-school leavers. If the government takes the lead, changes will eventually trickle down to the private sector as well."
To hammer the message home, the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, has been touring vocational schools recently, highlighting the career choices of what he calls Korea's new pioneers.
But he is up against some stiff opposition - not so much from students, perhaps, as from their older relatives.
In South Korea, parents will do almost anything to get their children into university.
At Seoul's main Buddhist temple, the price of an undergraduate in the family is two hours of prayer - every day - since July.
Hundreds of parents and grandparents have been turning up at these special examination-prayer sessions each afternoon to bow 108 times to the huge golden Buddhas staring down from the temple rafters.
Among them is Ju-sung Eun. Her granddaughter is sitting the college entrance exam this year, and Ms Ju-sung has been coming every day to pray for her success.
The government's plan to wean people away from university does not go down well with her.
"I don't agree with it," she says. "I think going to university is important for a person and I hope my granddaughter will achieve that."
It is a route that was not open for Ms Ju-sung in her day.
"I'm over 70," she cackles.
"In those days we didn't go to university. And because I didn't go, that makes my hope for my grandchildren even stronger."
Ms Ju-sung is old enough to remember the days before democracy, when a small group of elites ran this country.
The problems South Korea faces now are different - the results of its academic and financial success.
But for Ms Ju-sung - and many others here - fear of ending up on the wrong side of a two-tier system still runs deep.