The institutions of higher education included regular four-year colleges and universities, two-year junior vocational colleges, four-year teachers' colleges, and graduate schools. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990; Library of Congress, May 2005]

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Higher education institutions are increasingly diversified. In addition to regular undergraduate programs, there are industrial universities, universities of education, junior colleges, the Air and Correspondence University, technical colleges, seminaries, and other schools that students attend after graduating from high school. Military, Naval, and Air Force Academies provide leadership in national defense. Medicine and law are studied at regular universities. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

All college level programs last four years except for medicine and dentistry, which require six. All (except for KAIST, which reports to MOST, See Universities) are under the jurisdiction of MOE, which controls such matters as student quotas, qualification of teaching staff, curricula, and degree requirements. For other matters, universities comply with decisions made by a consortium called the Council for Higher Education. Deans and presidents of national and public universities are appointed by the president on the minister of education's recommendation. The presidents of private universities are elected by the boards of trustees, which are subject to the approval of MOE. As of 1998, there were 350 institutions of higher learning with a total of 2.95 million students, taught by 5,410 faculty members.

Universities and Colleges in South Korea

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “In 1994 universities were allowed to decide their own school affairs, including the calendar and graduation requirements, and incrementally were given more control over student quotas. In 1996, the government granted autonomy to seven provincial universities with the most superior educational conditions. The objectives of the new education system, as laid out by PCER, include full autonomy by higher educational institutions, while the necessary support for high quality research is provided by the government. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Each university sets the requirements for each credit (usually one semester hour), the minimum credits necessary for graduation, and the number of credits students may carry per semester. The curriculum consists of general and professional courses and includes required and elective courses.

“To help universities diversify, as each carry different strengths, government grants have been increased. Furthermore, the government has made it possible for private foundations to establish small, specialized colleges, graduate schools, and universities. Seventeen such colleges were approved in 1996.

“Government financial support for universities has increased to 1,013.6 billion won in 1996 from 329.7 billion won in 1993. With the introduction of post-doctoral training, government research grants also increased to 90 billion won in 1996 from 27.2 billion won in 1993. The support has been unevenly distributed, depending on in stitutions' and individuals' performance.

Junior Colleges in South Korea

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Junior colleges, providing two or three years of postsecondary education, were established in 1979 to educate and train mid-level technicians. As of 1999 there were 161 junior colleges with an enrollment of 589,720. Emphasis is on practical education, including hands-on training, in close cooperation with industry through internships. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Students concentrate on their specialties in preparation for the National Certification Examination. They can major in humanities and social studies, natural sciences, engineering, arts and physical education, nursing, clinical pathology, physical therapy, radiology, dental and other medical technology, mechanics courses, or aquaculture.

“Junior vocational colleges emphasize practical education, but it is not necessarily an endpoint. Students who so wish could continue their education at the university level. For employed students, junior colleges provide channels for continued education.”

Graduate Schools in South Korea

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “The purpose of graduate education is to offer an in-depth study of a specialized field and to enhance creativity and leadership in academic research. The Education Law stipulates that, to be called a university, an institution must have at least one graduate school. As of 2001, there are 115 academic graduate schools, 8 professional graduate schools, 514 evening special graduate schools (including 14 special graduate schools established in industrial universities), and 15 independent graduate schools without undergraduate programs. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“The minimum requirement for a master's degree is 24 semester credits, as well as a required thesis, in most cases; students normally finish in 4 semesters. The minimum requirement for a doctoral degree is a doctoral dissertation after completing 60 credits of coursework, which is usually completed in 3 academic years. Doctoral candidates must first complete the required credits and pass two foreign language examinations and a comprehensive examination before writing their dissertations (MOE).

Degrees in South Korea

It has been said the South Korea has more PhDs per capita than any other nations. That is true for Asia but there are around 10 European countries that have higher PHD rates. Tertiary graduation rate: Doctoral or equivalent level: 0.81 percent for men; 0.53 percent for women (2018 OECD)

Tertiary graduates by field: 14.8 percent in business; 20.3 percent in engineering; 15.8 percent in health; 7.4 percent in education (2018 OECD). Science and engrineering degrees as a percentage of all college degrees in the 2000s: 41.8 percent, compared to 18.4 percent in the United States. [Source: OECD]

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: ““Formerly one's college major, including premedical, was decided at the time of admission, and it was almost impossible to change majors after admission. More recently, colleges have shown some flexibility in allowing students greater freedom in changing majors and specific courses. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Majors and Schools Within Universities in South Korea

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: South Korea university students “study to be businessmen, doctors and dentists, teachers, government officials, scientists, engineers, musicians, and many other things. Their choices of major reflect social trends and values. In the 1960s, the top choice at SNU was law and diplomacy, since politics and world affairs seemed like the most important thing in national life. But in the 1980s, as Korea's economy grew and prospered, the preference shifted to business and has remained there ever since. Until recently, college applicants had to gamble somewhat with their college choices since they were only allowed to apply to one school at a time and even had to pick a major in advance and apply to study in a particular department of the school even before they graduated from high school. For many, this was a de facto career choice. For example, a school with formidable admission standards might have a dental studies department that had somewhat lower standards. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, London, 2000]

“A high school senior seeking the prestige of being a student at this top university might choose to major in dentistry simply because it was the easiest department to get into. He or she would therefore choose to follow a career as a dentist without necessarily being interested in teeth or oral surgery. The system, in other words, was subject to abuse.

“In the late 1990s this system was relaxed and students were allowed to apply to several schools at once. This made it more like the American system, where high school seniors apply to "reach schools" and "safe schools" hoping to gain admission to their first choice but knowing that they can fall back on their safe choice. The change has made life harder for admissions officers at Korean colleges and universities but it has made things better for applicants by eliminating the worst features of the previous single-choice system.

In South Korea, Five Times More Engineering Students Than the U.S.

In South Korea, undergraduate students are five times more likely to major in engineering than their counterparts in the United States. Michael Alison Chandler wrote in the Washington Post: U.S. universities and companies often look abroad for students and workers to fill positions because not enough Americans have the necessary skills or training. South Korea far outpaces the United States in the percentage of young adults with college degrees — 63 versus 41 percent — and its K-12 students routinely outperform U.S. children on international assessments. While South Korean leaders have begun to fret that their young people — raised among skyscrapers and affluence — are pursuing higher-paying jobs outside technical fields, the workforce remains highly tech-savvy. [Source: Michael Alison Chandler, Washington Post, July 17, 2012]

“One in four South Korean college students majors in engineering, compared to one in 20 in the U.S. The reason for the glut of engineers can be summed up easily: South Korea’s education system was designed to produce them. South Korea’s school system — unlike the American system — is centralized and regulated according to economic demands. The national ministry of education and the ministry of science and technology are one and the same, and the president’s vision for economic development can have immediate reverberations in schools.

“The South Korean government also closely regulates higher education, and historically set enrollment quotas for different programs and types of schools that reflect the economy’s needs. Such regulation would be unwelcome in the United States, said Joseph Helble, dean of the engineering school at Dartmouth College. American universities pride themselves on their freedom and on nurturing independent thinking in their students. “But if you need to rapidly develop technology and train many people, a tightly controlled system works,” he said. To entice the best students into science and tech fields, the South Korean government also created a flagship university — Kaist, or the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

South Korean Engineering Graduate

Reporting from Daejon, Michael Alison Chandler wrote in the Washington Post: Any eighth grader who wonders if anyone actually uses algebra should ask Hyungtae Lee, an electrical engineer who writes algorithms to build computers with the power of human sight. It’s a skill he learned in South Korea. Lee, who grew up in Seoul, learned the same math and history lessons year to year as students his age in smaller cities or villages throughout South Korea. As Lee explained, “My path has been set since elementary school.” [Source: Michael Alison Chandler, Washington Post, July 17, 2012]

“Lee, now 33, remembers watching a popular television drama called “Kaist” about life and love in the laboratory when he was a teenager, and imagining himself there. “I never missed an episode,” he said. He earned a master’s degree there after finishing first in his undergraduate class at Sogong University in Seoul.

When Lee completes his Ph.D. in 2013, he would like to work for Google. But he’s also interested in going back home to work for a Korean company or university. “It all depends on the offers I get,” he said.

Korean Studies

Korean studies has emerged as an academic field of study abroad. As of 1996, some 100 institutions of higher learning in the United States offered Korean-language programs as part of their regular academic curriculum. Kyna Rubin wrote in International Educator: Historically, the Chinese and Japanese languages have attracted more students than has Korean within U.S. academe. Interest in learning Korean was sparked by the start of the Korean War in 1950, Yale University Professor Kim Seung-ja told the Joongang Daily in 2013. Korean language courses ceased at Yale in 1961 and didn’t resume until 1990. The 1988 Seoul Olympics, Korea’s recovery from the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and the current worldwide craze for Hallyu, or the Korean pop culture wave, have revitalized that interest, she said. Ninety U.S. universities and sixty high schools teach Korean language, according to Joongang Daily. [Source: Kyna Rubin, International Educator, March-April, 2014]

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Koreans have been studying Western culture and scholarship with ardor since the end of the nineteenth century, but since their liberation from the Japanese and with their increased status on the world stage, interest in Korean culture, history, and intellectual and political life has steadily grown both within and outside Korea. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“With this in mind, the Academy of Korean Studies, a graduate school for a select group of highly specialized Korean studies fields, was founded on 30 June 1978. Through its publications and numerous national and international conferences and workshops, the Academy has been critical to internationalizing the field of Korean studies. As of 1998, the Academy had graduated 349 master's degree candidates and 87 doctoral degree candidates in 7 fields — philosophy and religion; history; arts; language, literature, and classical studies; society and folklore; politics and economics; and education and ethics. As of 2001, some 60 students were enrolled in each of the Academy's master's and Ph.D. programs.

“The government has supported many universities abroad that offer courses in Korean language and studies. As of 2001, some 167 universities and research institutes in 37 countries conduct research in Korean studies. The Korean government developed the Korean [Language] Proficiency Test (KPT) for foreigners and overseas Koreans. A total of 1,722 people passed the first test, administered in 1997. In 1999, the test was given in seven countries.

“As of 2001, Korea has bilateral agreements with some 80 countries. The government has also been an active participant in exchange programs initiated by international organizations, including APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), and UNESCO. The Korean National Commission for UNESCO has also been active in promoting international cultural understanding and exchanges of personnel, hosting international conferences and training programs, and supporting the exchange of academics, professionals, and students.

Nonformal Education in South Korea

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: ““Almost all Koreans believe that they need supplemental education to excel in their educationally competitive society. Those who can afford to take private lessons in music, fine arts, information technology, and sports do. But more students take supplemental academic courses, such as math and foreign languages, in cram courses offered at commercial outfits called hagwon ("academies"). [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Because of the concern that extra instruction could give unfair advantage to those who can afford more and high quality private lessons, the government has tried to control private tutoring in an effort to democratize education. For example, the 1980 Education Reform banned private tutoring in anything other than artistic subjects. This was criticized, however, as usurping parents' rights to educate their own children and also as depriving some poor college students of their opportunities for extra income by becoming private tutors — the most popular part time work (called by a German word, arbeit ) for students. Hagwon and private tutoring have been allowed, as people expressed their dissatisfaction with the quality of formal education, which has suffered from the high student to teacher ratio, poor instructional quality and facilities, and low morale of the teachers.

“According to the 1998-2000 MOE-KEDI report, hagwo totaled 57,935 with 3,412,430 students enrolled in performing arts (45.2 percent), technology (11.6 percent), liberal arts (24.2 percent), and administrative business (19.0 percent). The share of the students taking liberal arts courses was 40.7 percent; technology, 13.8 percent; performing arts, 28.9 percent; and administrative business, 16.6 percent.

“During the year 2000, each student spent 889,000 won (approximately US$800) compared to 1999 in which they spent 865,000 won; 34.5 percent of the total households surveyed reported they spent more than 20 percent of their income on private tutoring in 2000, compared to 31.8 percent in 1999.

Adult Education in South Korea

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “The Social Education Promotion Act was enacted to meet the demand for alternative educational opportunities, particularly of employed youths and adults who have not been able to attend regular schools. By law the government is to provide support for the promotion of lifelong education. Industry also actively responded to this program, establishing schools and special classes to meet the educational needs of their employees.

“The so-called para-schools, which give equivalence certificates to regular school programs, include civic schools (elementary school equivalency), civic high schools (middle school equivalency), industry-attached schools (middle and high), school-attached evening classes (middle and high), air and correspondence high schools, and industrial universities.

“Even in higher learning, there are various degree alternatives that may not be available in other countries. One option is the Bachelors' Examination System by which students may earn a degree simply by passing a set of examinations administered by the government. Another option, called the Academic Credit Bank System, allows students to bank the credits earned in any accredited institution of higher learning. The government grants a pertinent degree, after KEDI certifies that a particular student has earned the required number of credits at qualified institutions (Wiedman and Park).

“Distance learning institutions — Air and Correspondence high schools and the Air and Correspondence University — and industrial universities have been founded, followed by numerous private institutes established by social and religious organizations. An examination system has been institutionalized to qualify those who have not gone through a regular school system for progress to formal schools. In 1999, some 13,724 enrolled in 40 Air and Correspondence high schools, offering 308 classes taught by 1,188 teachers.

“The Korea Air and Correspondence University (KACU) was instituted in 1972, first as a branch school of Seoul National University with a two-year junior college program in five departments. In 1981, it had grown to a five year program, offering coursework leading to B.A. and B.Sc. degrees. In 1982, it became an independent national university with nine departments. In 1992 the entire university became a 4-year degree program with 17 major fields. In 1999 the university had 203,246 students in 18 departments with 168 faculty members. As of September 2001, a legal foundation is being laid such that the university may offer a graduate program. The university has conducted its lectures via distance education systems, using such media as satellite TV, CDROMs, video conferencing, the Internet, printed materials, radio, and audiocassettes. Therefore, regardless of their location, students can have access to an open, flexible education environment and one to one educational opportunities with their lecturers. The university also has 13 regional centers. The majority of students enrolled are workers in industries, government officials, soldiers, and teachers (MOE).

“The number of industrial universities, which offer mid-career education, grew to 19 with 158,444 students in 1998 — only 6 years after the first of its kind, Kyonggi Open University of Technology in Seoul, was founded by a private foundation in 1992. Classes are held in the evening, which allows students to be employed full time while attending classes.

Vocational Schools in South Korea

Young-Key Kim-Renaud wrote in “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Vocational high schools provide advanced general education as well as vocational training in agriculture, technology, industry, commerce, home economics, fishing, and oceanography, among other subjects. Since the 1980s, vocational high schools have offered diverse field training to provide a skilled labor force that can respond to the rapid changes in industry and society. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“In the 1970s, technical education was driven by manpower needs in heavy and chemical industries. In the 1980s, in step with rapid change in technology and development, technical education aimed at producing multiskilled technology workers. As of 2000, all vocational schools emphasize cyber-communication, information processing skills, new managerial skills, and foreign languages in order to prepare students for practical work in an industrialized and globalizing society. While financially supported by the government, vocational high schools enjoy greater autonomy than other high schools.

“To address rural labor shortages caused by migration into industrialized urban areas, agricultural education in high school focuses on scientific farming and mechanization and training future cadre and experts in agriculture. Candidates for agricultural schools are given incentives such as tuition waivers, free housing, settlement funds, and preferential treatment in military service and scholarships. Fishery and oceanography high schools, located in the harbor cities along the coasts of the Korean peninsula, use maritime resources to teach navigation technology. Practical experience at sea with six months of on-site training is required for graduation.

“The curriculum at vocational high schools consists of both general courses, which make up 40 to 60 percent, and vocational courses. In rural areas or small and medium-sized cities, there are schools which combine academic and vocational courses, called "comprehensive high schools" (MOE 2000, 66).

Combining Work and School in South Korean

According to the OECD: “The Vocational High-School Advancement Plan (2010-15) aimed to build vocational schools based on industrial needs and sector-specific skills, favouring work over college admission after high-school graduation. Improving the quality and relevance of vocational education in Korea is a priority as the average employment rate of junior college graduates and specialised vocational high-school graduates was only 61 percent and 41 percent, respectively, in 2013. [Source: OECD Better Life Index]

“A cornerstone of the Plan was the creation of Meister schools, which allow students to combine work and study, based on the German craftsmen training model. There are now 41 Meister schools in Korea, with more than 16 000 students, and six more planned for 2016-17. The job placement rate for Meister school graduates is more than 90 percent, compared to only 44 percent for traditional vocational high schools.

“A second initiative is the Work-Study Dual System, which aims to involve 70 000 students/workers and 10 000 companies in an apprenticeship system, launching programmes in vocational high schools, junior college states and universities. As the majority of participating firms are SMEs, the system faces financial challenges. To limit the fiscal cost as the programme expands, it should be reformed to make it more profitable to firms and students; SMEs could establish joint training centers, for example.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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