New school chiefs like French model

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New school chiefs like French model

A core pledge of the 13 liberal education bosses who won in the June 4 elections is to use their influence to reform the country’s university admissions system to end cut-throat competition and high levels of stress among students.

They pledged to work toward an “integrated network of state-run universities” that would put all public and private universities on the same footing, including some elite universities. They approved of the French education model in which students can freely choose any university if they achieve a certain grade on the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) of Korea.

In fact, Korean education superintendents have no authority in changing the country’s universities as they are only in charge of elementary, middle and high schools. The Ministry of Education is in charge of university education and the admissions systems, including the CSAT.

But the liberal education chiefs claim they can’t bring about any fundamental changes to their schools without first reforming how universities admit students. In the campaign leading up to the June 4 local elections, they vowed jointly to exert their influence for such a change, such as pressuring assemblymen to pass a bill or negotiating with the government-run Korean Council for University Education.

On May 19, they announced a series of joint pledges at a press meeting in Seoul. In attendance was Cho Hi-yeon, who went on to be elected as the Seoul education chief.

The first pledge they announced was to “resolve all of the stress from university admissions.”

“In order to prevent our students from studying obsessively for university admission, we will first overthrow ‘the hell of studying for the CSAT,’ based on the university admissions systems of some developed European countries,” they said in a joint statement.

They vowed to launch “a transnational committee for negotiation” and “a broad network of state-run universities.” Within their four-year term, they promised to adopt a European education system for university admission.

“Including Seoul National University, we will integrate all state-run universities into one network,” Cho Hi-yeon said at the time. “The liberal superintendents will make an alliance to rally public support for it.”

The candidates also said they support the policy of the late President Park Chung Hee, father of current President Park Geun-hye, of equalizing the level of all high schools.

“It has been 40 years since ex-President Park Chung Hee launched his policy to equalize the level of high schools,” Cho said. “We need to overhaul the elitist system of university education that hinders the standardization of high schools.

“If we launch an integrated network of all public and state-run universities, just like France did, we could ease the tough competition to enter the prestigious Seoul National University, which has about 3,500 places for freshmen. Under the new system, students will compete to enter the integrated network of public universities, which have about 35,000 places in total,” Cho said.

Cho added that if the integrated network includes some elite private universities, competition would be eased even further.

In 1971, France standardized the level of all universities. If students pass the baccalaureat exam, the university admission test that evaluates basic knowledge of students, they can choose any one of the 13 universities in Paris.

In Korea’s 2007 presidential campaign, candidate Kwon Young-gill of the opposition Democratic Labor Party made a similar pledge. In the 2012 race, Moon Jae-in, candidate of the Democratic Party, did also.

The 13 new superintendents say they will first standardize the level of public and private high schools, and then transform Korea’s CSAT into something more like the French test. Then they will work to put all state-run universities into one network, and give an integrated bachelor’s degree from those universities to students.

Such an integrated university system actually means shutting down state-run Seoul National University as an independent entity.

But it will hardly be easy for the liberal chiefs to get their wishes.

“The desire to abolish SNU is nothing new,” said Lee Won-geun, secretary general of the Korean Council for University Education.

“No matter how much the superintendents want university reform, the presidents of the universities will not support their idea,” Lee said. “And even if they did support the superintendents, the Education Ministry and the National Assembly would never accept it.”

“In fact, even I am skeptical of the realization of the pledge,” said Jang Hoe-ik, an SNU professor who was an architect of the joint pledge. “So far, we proposed the idea frequently to SNU, but the admissions officials have furiously opposed it.”

In fact, education specialists in Seoul say that the French model is actually a failed one. Although students pass the baccalaureat exam, some smart students choose to go to the Grandes Ecoles, a group of elite universities that are outside the integrated system.

“The education systems of France and Germany are drawing huge protests in their homeland, as the competitiveness of the students is far behind those in U.S. universities,” said Gang Tae-jung, an education studies professor at Chung-Ang University. “And anyway, it would never be easy for Koreans to adopt France’s equalitarian values in education because we are accustomed to elitism in education.”


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