[FORUM]Korea’s students deserve better

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[FORUM]Korea’s students deserve better

At Incheon International Airport, a man in his mid-30s held his pre-teen son’s shoulders while he gave him some advice.
“Always listen to your mom, and study hard. Make sure that you master the English language,” the man said. The son nodded. A woman standing next to the father and son, presumably the boy’s mother, burst into tears. This is a typical scene for many Korean households that have become gireogi, or wild geese, families.
Last year, 390,000 Koreans studied overseas, including elementary and middle school students living apart from their families. That figure is up 13.3 percent from the 350,000 in 2003.
About 50,000 households are “gireogi families.” Those students spent $5.15 billion overseas, the Trade Research Institute of the Korea International Trade Association estimated, up 10.5 percent from the $4.66 billion spent in 2003.
Because this figure doesn’t include the cash many families have taken with them, the sum actually spent on educating Korean children in foreign countries is most likely greater than this.
Korea’s income from international education was only $260 million, which means the deficit reached $4.89 billion. That is the largest deficit in the education balance sheet among the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It appears that the sharp increase in the number of students studying overseas will continue.
Because Korea has limited resources, fostering talented manpower is the only way to maintain the nation’s competitive power. From a national perspective, the country must appreciate the students who go abroad en masse for a better education.
Although a large sum of money is going outside the country, it is nothing to be worried about. If those students are able to use their abilities refined from overseas education at home and abroad to their maximum capacities, it will surely increase Korea’s national power.
In particular, the number of undergraduate as well as graduate students studying overseas should grow. According to last year’s survey by the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland, Korean universities ranked 59th on the competitive power list among 60 surveyed countries. That is two steps down from 2003.
There seems to be nothing to learn from domestic schools with poor conditions. It is better for bright students to pursue their academic desires at distinguished schools abroad ― and it is also better for Korean society.
But we must think about whether it is good to allow the exodus of young students. Is it really proper to send children away when their identities have not been fully determined yet? Will it really be fruitful to send children to schools in the United States that have more Korean students than American children?
It is not difficult to understand why parents send their young children overseas to study. The public education system in Korea will hardly guarantee a chance for the children to enter decent universities, and it is extremely expensive to provide private tutoring.
The college admissions system flip-flops overnight all the time, and cheating and manipulated school records are so common. It is natural that parents are fed up with this country’s education system.
They would rather have their children study abroad and become fluent in English, which will help them succeed in this era of globalization, while spending less money than they would have on private tutoring here.
The plan, of course, works fine if the student finishes his or her college education abroad. If they return to Korea before graduating from college, it will be extremely difficult for them to adapt to life back home.
In foreign countries, independence and creativity are always emphasized, but the student will have to face an education system focused on memorization upon returning to Korea.
There are so many examples of returning students who have failed. Recently, a high school teacher in Seoul’s Gangnam area was accused of helping such a student with a test.
The more serious issue is that sending children overseas for early education often results in family problems, such as divorce and legal battles over wealth.
Fathers commit suicide out of psychological and physical exhaustion, having been left in Korea to financially support their children’s education expenses. Mothers become unfaithful while supporting their children in foreign countries. Such news is extremely depressing.
There are more things to do than simply deplore the ill side effects of sending children overseas at young ages. But it is also extremely difficult to improve Korea’s education drastically overnight.
There is only one solution: Korea’s education market must be opened, and educational institutions from advanced countries must enter to meet the demand for overseas education.
Giving up the protectionist policy in education will not only curtail the unnecessary expense of studying abroad, but also end the tears and regrets of “gireogi fathers.”

* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Doh Sung-jin
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