'Admission system to be role model for Asia'
By Kang Shin-who
The whole nation will hold its breath today for the state-run college admission test ? even airplanes will be grounded at airports near schools where applicants take English language listening exams.
Civil servants and many office workers will be allowed to come to work an hour later than usual to ease traffic congestion so that applicants for the test won’t be late for the critical test. Tens of thousands of parents of the applicants will go to temples or churches to pray that their children perform well.
This annual ritual has been witnessed for decades here. But it may eventually change. One of the things that will help bring about change is the admissions officer system.
The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, headed by Lee Ju-ho, is obviously increasing its stake in the system despite concerns that it is too early to expand it as universities are not yet ready for the move.
Minister Lee is betting that the admissions officer system will resolve a lot of problems facing the Korean education sector, and set a new role model for other Asian nations.
“If it goes as well as planned, it will reduce private education costs and boost our educational fundamentals. This kind of state-administered test is a problem not only for Korea but also other East Asian nations as a whole,” Lee said. “Many talented students are tied to this outdated test. That’s the limitation hindering Asian nations’ growth. If Korea can get out of this trap, it will be a tremendous achievement.”
Lee said the new admissions system will ultimately help nurture more creative and well-rounded future leaders.
“This could be one of the biggest achievements of the government,” Lee said.
The ministry recently started to operate the website (www.isi.go.kr) to help parents and students compare schools before selecting one.
Lee said the ministry will oblige foreign schools here to disclose more information on the website from next year, with a necessary revision of the rules planned next year.
Korea has a total of 51 schools, established for foreign nationals and Korean students seeking an international education, including three education institutes in Free Economy Zones (FEZ).
More international schools including the U.K.-based North London Collegiate School (NLCS) are planned in the “Jeju Global Education City.”
The educator responded positively to the global education city project on the nation’s largest island. “Schools (on the island) are not only for our students but also for other Asian students including those from China.
“In the past, many Korean children went overseas for studies, so it is meaningful that we have international schools for excellent students from around Asian countries,” Lee said.
A state-run corporation plans to build 12 kindergartens, and elementary and secondary schools for 9,000 students by 2015 on the island at a cost of $1.7-billion. The English education town, which is under construction in Seogwipo, is designed to accommodate about 23,000 residents and 5,800 households in its residential and commercial facilities.
“Other Korean schools will be motivated by the (international) schools and learn from them,” Lee added.
On the “Joint Schooling Program” designed for Korean students and children of U.S. Army employees here, Lee said he is still looking into the project, adding that he is positive about the plan.
The U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) last year proposed to share construction costs in return for allowing Korean students to study at new army schools, which will be built in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province.
Under Lee’s leadership, the ministry plans to reduce private English education costs not only for elementary and secondary students, but also for collegians.
One vehicle to change the landscape of domestic English education is the introduction of a state-developed English test, which will debut in 2012.
According to statistics, nearly 2.9 million annually apply for English ability tests and over 2 million take imported English tests. The newly developed test also aims to replace English proficiency tests in the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) and TOEFL and TOEIC.
“The new state-developed test will be a useful barometer measuring English proficiency of applicants for colleges and companies,” Lee said.
“The first level of the test will improve the level of English education and help employers recruit employees they want,” he added.
The lawmaker-turned-minister also said the government will take steps to sharpen international competitiveness of universities. But he said important education-related bills are waiting for approval at the National Assembly, citing the bill governing incorporation of state-run universities.
“I believe Seoul National University (SNU) should be incorporated as soon as possible. Other state-run universities are expected to join in the move. But the trouble is that the bill is still pending at the National Assembly,” he said.
The ministry has been weeding out non-viable colleges. It has already started to rate universities, according to key data including financial status and the employment rate of their graduates.
It is requiring universities to put more focus on producing more talented graduates. To that extent, it has introduced the Advancement of College Education (ACE) program, which provides incentives to schools that teach their students well.
Asked about his opinion on corporal punishment, he said the ministry in principle agrees to the ban on physical punishment at schools.
However, he noted that the ministry needs to devise alternative punishment for teachers to use in controlling students.
He also commented on the “students’ bill of rights,” which frees students from enforcement at schools. “I believe freedom always comes with duty and responsibility. “
On the controversy over extending free meal programs at primary and secondary schools, Lee reiterated that the expansion as proposed by some municipal and provincial education offices will be hard due to a lack of funding.
“If we have money, it’s good to expand the free meal program. But we have limitations in funding. Any move to expand the free meal program without securing enough budget is nothing but populism,” he said.
Who is Lee Ju-ho?
Minister Lee, 49, has led President Lee Myung-bak’s educational reform that emphasizes competitiveness and liberalization.
At the start of the current administration, Lee, as the top presidential aide in education affairs, pushed new education polices a bit too hard, creating instant opposition from various interest groups.
However, Lee is apparently slowing down the pace of reform and is now seeking to cement what has been introduced.
A member of the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) from 2004 to 2008, Lee helped come up with the blueprint of the current administration’s efforts to reform the education system.
Born in Daegu, he earned a Ph.D. in labor economics from Cornell University in 1991 after graduating from Seoul National University.
He became a professor at the KDI School of Public Policy and Management in 1998 after years of dealing with labor and employment issues. Lee also served as a senior presidential secretary for education affairs at Cheong Wa Dae.