[WIDE INTERVIEW]Minister grades education policies

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[WIDE INTERVIEW]Minister grades education policies

Earlier this month, 24 member schools of the Korean Council for University Education, including Seoul National, Yonsei, Korea, Sogang, Hanyang and Ewha Womans Universities, agreed that high school grade records will account for 50 percent of the admission decision starting in 2008. Although the schools are free to choose which subjects will be considered, it is widely believed that Education Minister Kim Jin-pyo pressured them to introduce the new policy. Since early this year, Mr. Kim has been asking major universities to increase the amount of consideration given to high school grades in their admissions process. The JoongAng Ilbo sat down with Mr. Kim, who doubles as a deputy prime minister, to discuss his take on the changes to university admissions criteria and the nation’s educational policies in general

Q. Did the universities alter their admission policies to assign more weight to high school grades because of pressure from the Education Ministry?
A. Each university is free to decide its own admission policies. With the increased importance of high school grades comes less significance of essay writing tests at each school. When you try to evaluate students’ qualifications after 12 years of primary and secondary education based on a single test, problems will arise.

With high school grades receiving more consideration than before, the institutions with more top students, such as independent private schools and foreign language schools, might see their students have more difficulty entering the universities they want.
Most graduates from independent private schools end up at universities of their choice, and they will continue to do so in the future. There are many different ways to apply for and enter top universities, even with relatively poor grades at high school.

Many high schools said they were surprised by the sudden decision to give more weight to high school grades.
The government has been persuading universities to raise the importance of high school grades in their admissions process since last year. Over the last month, we assessed the credibility and quality of the high schools’ grading process and were satisfied with the results. From now on, high schools will be able to focus on continuing to improve their education.

What does assigning more value to high school grades signify?
That the core of secondary education will be inside schools. I expect high schools will change for the better.

What do you think has been the problem with previous sets of educational policies?
They were too supplier-centric and bureaucratic. They have to become more user-friendly.

Do you have the same philosophy on education as President Roh Moo-hyun?
Essentially, yes. Mr. Roh’s philosophies are almost shockingly practical, especially from a progressive point of view.

When you were the minister of finance, you were a proponent of free competition and market theory, but after becoming education minister, you have been against expansion of independent private schools. Is this your attempt to be on the same page as Mr. Roh?
Absolutely not. Even when I was finance minister, I always felt that solving disparity issues between Gangnam and Gangbuk areas would go a long way toward resolving the more general polarization problem between the two regions. When I consulted with regional heads of education departments on how many independent private schools they could establish, the answer I got was one each in Busan and Gwangju, South Jeolla province, and perhaps three in Seoul. They all said the process would cost a lot. To push for policies for the sake of two or three schools would be irresponsible.

Do you mean that you weren’t quite aware of the reality on the education front as the finance minister?
No, I don’t. It’s just that upon becoming the education minister, I realized that running more independent private schools wouldn’t be the answer.

Those independent schools’ tuitions cannot be more than three times those of regular high schools. Is it right for the state to set private schools’ tuition fees?
Nearly half of all high schools are private and if we left them to determine their own tuition fees, it would cause more chaos. We can’t allow the financial burden in education to increase, and it would be irresponsible of us if we did.

From a market economy perspective, wouldn’t it be better to allow competitive private schools to be more autonomous in their management, without government subsidies?
If there were fewer private schools, that scenario might work, but our reality doesn’t give that sort of choice. It’d be quite dangerous to let private schools dictate their own fates.

It seems unrealistic to think that all private schools will turn down government subsidies to become independent. Perhaps less than 10 percent of those schools have the means to stand on their own. Isn’t encouraging the few competitive ones to grow the right way to go?
I think that it’d be irresponsible of the government to simply let schools set their own tuitions. The tuition fees would get out of hand.

Chang Hae-ok, the head of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union, has said she will continue special lectures that rely on materials other than textbooks in order to teach students about ideological issues. What’s your stance on that?
We have to stop all attempts to turn education into a tool to deliver ideological values by a union. Any lectures must be approved by the respective principals beforehand.

The teachers’ union has been around for more than 15 years. How would you evaluate its performance?
In the early years, the union was praised for its movement to stop teachers accepting bribes from parents. But today, it’s becoming more of an interest group for its member teachers.

Don’t you think the Uri Party is using education as a political tool? There are some dubious policies that suggest so.
Not at all. With elections looming, this is an excellent time to be talking about education. I hope that the voters select candidates with a lot of interest in education.

You are against universities’ respective entrance exams and university entrance through financial contribution, and are a proponent of a level field for high schools. Do you plan to change your stance on those issues?
Unless we can somehow alleviate pressure on students entering university, I don’t think so.

by Kim Chong-hyuk, Kang Hong-jun
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