Not everyone is welcome to applyIn his book “Linked,” Albert-Laszlo Barabasi writes that all networks have a deep underlying order and operate according to simple but powerful rules. Jeong Jin-me (not her real name) knows the rules do not operate in her favor. An economics major, Ms. Jeong, 23, sees herself with few job opportunities after she graduates. Simply put, she is not linked, or well-connected, to a university that counts in Korea’s social network.
Ms. Jeong is a senior at Anyang University, a small Christian school, located on the outskirts of Seoul. She decided to study at Anyang mainly because the school had guaranteed to offer her personalized hands-on experience in the field of finance. Ms. Jeong says she could have attended other universities with better reputations, but she did not think the university she attended would matter in her professional life.
After months of submitting countless job applications, highlighting her high score on an English-language proficiency exam and her stellar grade-point average, Ms. Jeong is discouraged, saying she now recognizes what her classmates call the “academic caste system” in Korea.
“It’s frustrating. I just don’t get a chance for an interview,” she says. “When I finally do get one, companies want to know if I have a professional license to compensate for my university.”
Finding an entry-level job is hard for everyone. But in a country where the university a person graduated from carries more weight than any skill or academic accomplishment, candidates from schools not among the nation’s top educational institutions are treated as “inferior” choices for employment.
This being the case, Korea’s system of advanced education has developed into a limited number of preferred hubs. Being directly linked to any one of them, that is as a graduate, more or less assures success in everything from finding a suitable mate for marriage to a good job.
Koreans are obsessed with academic status. Media surveys list school rankings based on criteria that seldom take a close look at educational standards. The highest-ranking schools among the public are those with the largest number of graduates in high places.
According to a recent report by the Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training, 7 out of 10 Koreans said they feel “deprived” by the social inequality created by academic elitism. The study shows that graduates of schools held in lesser regard find fewer employment opportunities, get fewer promotions and pay raises, and even are targets of subtle insults. That partly explains why Korean parents spend a significant amount of the family’s income on private tutors to help their children gain admission to the top schools.
Experts say academic cliques are most rampant in areas involving strong social networks. And this is quite evident in Korea. Ideally, the system of higher education is a democracy that awards achievement. Each school’s network of graduates should be represented proportionally throughout society. But as Mr. Barabasi and other researchers have found, networks are not democratic. There is an innate bias toward the well-connected. Scientifically, that means that a node linked to a highly desired hub will attract more high-quality links. In reality, a graduate of Seoul National University would attract more choice job interviews from the best companies. This process is called preferential attachment.
Universities outside of Seoul are particularly isolated from the central education hubs, which include Korea and Yonsei universities, and, therefore, even more subject to exclusion. Korea has 3.3 million university students, and only a fraction of them are linked to the recognized top institutions.
Recently one Internet reader identified as a graduate of a university outside of Seoul vented his frustration on the bulletin board of Scout, a local job recruitment site: “Why,” he asked, “did the government even build schools outside of Seoul if they were going to treat us like trash?”
In the past, graduates of regional universities and two-year colleges were the typical targets of discrimination in job recruitment by large conglomerates. But as the economy deteriorated and jobs became tougher to find, more and more companies started limiting interviews to students from the nation’s most prestigious schools and America’s Ivy League institutions. The bias still works for the well connected, but to an even more damaging extent.
A graduate or student of Seoul National University is linked academically to more than 50 percent of the current government ministers. If networks are by nature biased, how can Korea’s exclusionary educational system be addressed? Roh Moo-hyun, who was elected president even though he never attended university, suggested several solutions in February at the start of his government. He promised balanced funding for schools across the nation and a plan that forces universities to upgrade their competitiveness so that the quality of each school would be judged based on its academic status, not on its reputation or brand.
Experts suggest that the heavy emphasis on the college entrance exam and the current high school education system, which is predominantly based on a standardized ranking, should be changed. Another suggestion is that admissions should be left up to each university, instead of being controlled by the central government. This would allow schools to develop their own materials for screening applicants, diversifying the admission system in the long term, advocates argue.
Anger and bitter distrust runs thick among most students hunting for jobs. Hangyeore 21, a newsweekly, recently reported in a special edition covering academic elitism that a growing number of Korean companies are installing online filters to automatically delete resumes from graduates of universities not on the company’s preferred list. According to the Hangyeore 21 report, the system allows a personnel officer to grade applicants on their university, their grade-point average, major and language test scores. While this might be seen as leveling the playing field, an applicant’s university is more heavily weighted in the evaluation process than any other measure, including class ranking.
Yun Seung-deok, a marketing representative for an advertising firm, confirms such reports, but argues that the issue of academic elitism should be discussed in the context of other forms of social discrimination, such as class, family ties, political connections and regionalism.
Mr. Yun completed his bachelor of arts in journalism at Handong University in Mokpo, a small city in South Jeolla province. The attraction was that one professor teaches no more than 15 students. Mr Yun transferred to Handong from Chung-Ang University in Seoul, despite the fact that Chung-Ang is a bigger school with a better reputation. It was the right choice for him, he says. But soon after graduating, Mr. Yun tried to get a position at an advertising firm. Nobody called him for an interview, he says. He enrolled in one of the country’s top graduate schools of journalism. Now he works for a leading advertising company.
“Of course your university can be considered a handicap,” Mr. Yun says. “But so can many other things in a capitalist structure. Unless we change the entire system of capitalism, which is layered with class distinctions, trying to abolish the elitist sentiment alone seems to be a useless effort.”
In fact, discriminating against an applicant based on gender, marital status or university without “a practical reason” is considered a violation of an individual’s civil rights under South Korea’s constitution. But it is evident that companies and other organizations are discriminating in hiring. Fifty-seven percent of the high-ranking Blue House officials are graduates of Seoul National University. More than half of the judges at local courts are Seoul National graduates, according to the Korea Bar Association. Even more telling, 96 percent of professors at Seoul National University are Seoul National alumni. This tendency of avoiding graduates from other schools has earned Seoul National the opprobrium of “royal incest.”
Last month the National Human Rights Commission reported that one of the country’s four top conglomerates hires employees based on an evaluation system that gives higher scores to graduates of Seoul National, Korea and Yonsei universities and Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and Pohang University of Science and Technology. The incident angered students, many of whom are still looking for a job.
“It looks like a political show when speakers from major conglomerates visit universities outside of Seoul to give a talk,” says a student at Pusan National University. “These companies make visits to our schools even when they have no intention of hiring us, because they know their companies are going to get a bad rep if they decide to give speeches only at the top schools.”
But some companies defend the process.
“Most personnel representatives we’ve met said that it’s impossible to distinguish the applicant’s ability without the name of a university,” says Choi Seung-eun, a manager of media operations at Incruit, a local online employment recruiter. Ms. Choi recently published a paper that examines clauses in company applications that can be viewed as discriminatory. “The large number of applications they receive makes it difficult to evaluate everyone manually, and there is no better standard for judging entry-level applicants than to rely on their school.”
Ms. Choi said that only 3 percent of company representatives she interviewed expressed an interest in removing “University” from their applications.
Students who are attending the elite schools realize the seriousness of the issue. But many choose to be indifferent about it; some even support the tradition, saying it is a matter of fact that graduates of the best schools are smarter and studied harder.
According to a recent survey by Snu Now, an on-line newspaper published by Seoul National University, up to 80 percent of 807 students in a recent survey said that academic elitism has harmed Korean society. About 93 percent of the students said Seoul National ― and the power of its alumni associations ― is partly responsible for alienating and marginalizing graduates from other schools. Yet while they admit that a problem exists, about half of the respondents said they expected the same privileges. Fifty-six percent said being a graduate of Seoul National would boost their careers.
Jang Ho-wan, a director of the professors Association at Seoul National, raised this issue during a recent symposium he organized to look at the school’s role in Korean society.
“An academic clique is an attempt by incompetent individuals to construct their own sector as a way of maintaining power,” he said. “Criticisms of Seoul National stem from the fact that its graduates are not living up to the ideal of ‘noblesse oblige’ as social intellectuals.”
He continued, “Seoul National professors have left many students with potential talent to languish, allowing them to use their intellect solely to climb social ladders without giving back to the community.”
by Park Soo-mee