The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Hasty policy shift

Yoon’s abrupt demand for a change in Suneung sparks dispute and confusion

By Korea Herald

Published : June 20, 2023 - 05:30

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In South Korea, education policy is often stressed as an endeavor spanning 100 years. But education policymakers appear to be driven by short-term political calculations. A recent episode involving President Yoon Suk Yeol and the country's college scholastic ability test, known as Suneung, presents a striking example.

Last Thursday, Education Minister Lee Ju-ho outlined education reform plans to Yoon and said in a media briefing that the president ordered him to exclude any material not covered in school from the annual entrance examination. Unsurprisingly, Yoon's remarks touched off a huge wave of confusion within the education sector, leaving high school students, parents and teachers perplexed. Many interpreted the president’s instruction as a sudden demand to lower the test’s difficulty level, just five months before the critical Korean CSAT takes place -- a make-or-break moment for Korean students.

Given the ensuing confusion and a torrent of complaints among test-takers, particularly those scheduled to take Suneung in November, a political blame game is now unfolding.

The presidential office has been scrambling to contain the fallout from Yoon's remarks. Presidential spokesperson Kim Eun-hye issued a written statement on Friday, asserting that the president did not specify an “easy or difficult” exam. Kim claimed that Yoon’s focus remains on the exam's role in assessing academic ability fairly, and the president's instruction was intended to exclude what is not taught within the public education curriculum.

Yoon reportedly expressed concerns that test questions beyond the public education curriculum would compel students to rely on private education, fostering a form of collusion between education authorities and the private education industry. While it remains unclear whether there is a “cartel” -- an often-used target for Yoon’s reform initiatives in various sectors -- it is indisputable that Korea is a nation where gaining admission to prestigious universities is of paramount importance for securing well-paid jobs and charting successful careers. Thus, the competition to achieve high scores in the entrance exam is incredibly fierce.

According to a government report in March, a whopping 26 trillion won ($20.2 billion) was spent on private academies, tutoring and online courses in 2022, despite a slight decrease in the number of students. The heavy spending on private education imposes a financial burden on households with children.

In an apparent attempt to divert public outrage away from the president, the presidential office issued a “stern warning” to Education Minister Lee Ju-ho for his arbitrary interpretation of Yoon’s remarks, holding him accountable for the public confusion. However, it was a high-ranking official in charge of Suneung who bore the brunt of the dispute instead. The Education Ministry announced the replacement of the director-level official on Friday, even though he was appointed to the position just six months ago. The ministry also announced it would conduct an audit of the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation, the organization overseeing Suneung, ostensibly to ensure the exam's fairness. The institute's chief Lee Gue-min resigned Monday.

The main opposition Democratic Party pounced on the explosive controversy, launching a scathing attack on Yoon. During a briefing on Sunday, Rep. Hong Sung-kook asserted, “It is wrong for President Yoon, who knows nothing about education, to meddle in the preparation of Suneung questions.” Democratic Party spokesperson Kang Sun-woo claimed Saturday that Yoon’s impromptu order has left people confused and anxious.

Meanwhile, the ruling People Power Party swiftly came to Yoon’s defense. The party’s senior spokesperson Yoo Sang-bum posed a rhetorical question: “What's wrong with Suneung's original purpose of assessing students' academic ability fairly?”

On Monday, the People Power Party and the Education Ministry convened a meeting and decided to exclude the "killer questions" -- the most difficult test questions, including those outside the curriculum -- beginning with the mock test scheduled for September.

Considering the hypercompetitive nature of Suneung, however, it remains uncertain whether the hastily arranged measure will actually reduce spending on private education in the long term.

Equally disconcerting is that it has taken just five days for the government to modify the exam’s difficulty level in response to the president’s sudden demand -- a baffling pace for those who believe that education policy should be carefully and meticulously crafted with a long-term view of the next 100 years.