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Mars Education Missing Step

Why is it that a country with such a high level of pride in academic studies sets the bar so low when it comes to obtaining academia?

Once again I was talking to a colleague today, a wealthy, intellectual and professionally successful Korean middle aged working male with children gearing up for the university entrance exams. Our conversation ranged from the study schedules to his future study plans of children once they start university. He stressed to me the importance of entrance into a good university because life is basically set after you manage to get that university’s name on your degree. I have no doubt that his two high school students are indeed working incredibly hard to gain entrance to one of those universities that no one is allowed to mention by name any more. But the question here is, why?

Korea is a country with very high enrollment rates in all forms of higher education, but why is achieving undergraduate status so important in this country? Undergraduate studies are basically another form of high school. As an undergraduate student you are expected to listen, learn and regurgitate a collection of other people’s ideas into a complex essay argument with appropriate referencing. This is just the first step in learning proper academic form, it does not make you an academic, it only opens the door for you to become an academic if you demonstrate enough ability. At which time you may go on to study a master’s or Ph.D.

After the university entrance exams, so many Korean students are so burnt out from the high school studying experience that they need time to relax, party, drink, have a life, have a boyfriend or girlfriend ― very few engage in university study with anything near the dedication they had in high school. Why? They feel they can relax because they became an undergraduate? But actually, they have not proven anything academically to the world as an undergraduate, they will need many more years of learning, development and maturing before they can hope to have their voices heard in any academic setting.

Last year when the list of 100 top universities across the globe was published, there was much distress and name calling from the Korean public. It was perceived that Korea had been hard done by. It could not be conceived that the much beloved top Korean universities had not made the list or were very low on it. People failed to understand this list from a non-Korean perspective. This list was not measuring universities at an undergraduate level, this list was measuring the academic achievements of universities and none of those achievements have anything to do with the universities’ undergraduate status in Korean society.

On numerous occasions I have discussed with Korean CEOs how they choose their high level MBA graduate candidates fresh from university ― invariably they say they would ideally like to hire a Korean who has graduated with an MBA from either a U.S. Ivy league university or the two famous U.K. universities. From the people I have talked to, there seems to be very little affection directed towards any of the Korean university MBA programs.

Perhaps solving the problem of over heated competition during the university entrance examinations needs to start with the consideration that an undergraduate degree is not the be all and end all of academic life; that post graduate masters and Ph.D. program spots within every Korean university need to be open to every student from every university based on a merit system and probably the submission of a written essay on the topic that the student intends to conduct further research on. The key to ending the ridiculous study regime of Korean high school students is to acknowledge that entrance to any university as an undergraduate is not really that special anyway, it is merely the beginning of an interesting journey that may see that student achieve academic success.

Korean universities should cut back on advertising in subway stations and focus on putting forward top academics to raise the academic profile of their researchers internationally. Ph.D. programs should follow internationally recognized academics and promote increased outputs from capable minds. Graduate schools must welcome applications from graduates of all universities, not only in house or famous universities in Korea. Finally, academic merit of a university should never be measured on undergraduate courses and by implication the ability of high school students to cram.

By Jake Mars
Jake Mars is a language specialist at Hyundai Engineering. @ Yongsan, Seoul


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