For Korean Kids, a Long Trip to School

Why parents are enrolling kids abroad

Choi Hye Sook has been separated from her husband for almost a year. She didn't leave her Seoul home because her marriage went bad. She did so to get her daughter, Yoon Hye Bin, a decent education, something Choi deems impossible in South Korea. So, while dad continues to labor as a television producer back home, mother and daughter have moved to a one-bedroom, rented apartment in the Vancouver suburb of Coquitlam, where Hye Bin attends Riverside Secondary School. There, the 17-year-old would-be doctor is focusing on the sciences and taking advantage of a system that encourages creativity and problem-solving. While learning in English was a struggle at first, requiring extra tutoring, Hye Bin has a B average, according to Mom.

But make no mistake: This is a serious sacrifice. Hye Bin's $8,200 tuition (what Canada charges foreigners to attend its public schools), $21,000 annual living costs in Canada, plus fees for another daughter attending a Norwegian university, eat up 70% of the father's income. And the strains on family life are incalculable. "Because of [Korea's] ridiculous education system," says Choi, 49, "our family is torn apart. I can't help being angry with the government."

NO FLAIR. Choi is far from alone. Her daughter is part of a growing army of Korean children attending school abroad. Parents have long decried an education system with large classes, rote learning, and a rigid curriculum devised by bureaucrats. To be sure, Korean kids excel in math and science, but critics complain that the schools don't instill in them the creative flair needed to innovate and build a knowledge-based economy. With China industrializing and trying to best Korean companies in sectors ranging from steel to shipbuilding to home electronics, Korea must move up the value chain. "Unless we have a good supply of brains, Korea faces the danger of becoming a marginal player," says Park Seung Rok, head of the Center for Corporate Studies, a business-funded think tank.

That's where foreign, and particularly Anglo-Saxon, schools come in. Not only do they emphasize individuality, they also offer instruction in English, an increasingly prized asset in Korea. Another plus: The workload at Australian, Canadian, U.S., and New Zealand secondary schools is less arduous than in Korea, where kids put in 18-hour days, including time spent with private tutors or at cramming schools. Finally, attending foreign secondary schools means students can more easily get into foreign universities--and avoid the intense rivalry for spots at home. "The Korean education system has lots of things to be admired," says Kim Heung Ju, director general of the state-funded Korean Educational Development Institute. "The problem is only a handful of universities matter in Korea. That leads to excessive competition."

Until recently, Korean children under 17 weren't allowed to flee overseas for school. Deeming it unpatriotic, the government had the right not to renew the passports of those who flouted the law. In 1998, parents successfully sued the government over the matter, and last November Seoul began allowing high school students over the age of 15 to study abroad. Tens of thousands of Korean youngsters have since headed to overseas secondary schools, and an increasing number are opting for foreign universities, too (table). While the U.S. won't allow noncitizens to attend public schools, many Koreans do so illegally after putting in a couple of years at a private institution. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand allow foreign students to attend public schools at a cost of $3,500 to $8,200 per year.

Back home in Korea, the exodus is having both a sociological and economic impact. Stay-behind fathers, dubbed "temporary bachelors," are now so numerous they have formed associations to swap information about their kids' foreign education. A thriving consulting business has sprung up to help parents navigate the immigration process or acquire study visas. And, as they did long before relaxing the law that prevented kids from heading overseas, officials fret that the nation's best and brightest may never return home.

MORE MONEY. The government realizes it must do something fast. In late July, Seoul rolled out a new plan to overhaul the education system. It promises to ditch rote learning and foster creative and independent thinking. Seoul has earmarked $12.8 billion, from 2001 to 2004, to hire 23,600 teachers. The goal is to reduce the number of high school students per class, from an average of 43 to 35 or less. The money also will be used to train instructors to teach more creatively and encourage discussion. And beginning next year, Korea's heavily regulated schools and universities will have more discretion to set their own curriculum and admissions procedures.

Skepticism abounds. The government has made numerous changes to the school system in the past two decades, but they have been geared more to catch votes than fix the system. For instance, the authorities abolished entrance exams for secondary schools after low-income voters complained that richer families had an unfair advantage because they could afford tutors. Seoul also made a multiple-choice test the most important criterion for college admission, meaning universities couldn't set their own entrance requirements. The result: While cramming intensified to prepare kids for multiple-choice tests, overall academic performance of high school students worsened. It hasn't helped that education is a political football. Since taking office in 1998, President Kim Dae Jung has replaced his Education Minister six times--each time for political reasons.

Critics insist that far more radical steps are necessary. "We have had many discussions about reshaping the education system without any success," says Kim Ki Hwan, an adviser to Goldman, Sachs & Co. and a former Vice Industry Minister. "The shortcut is to promote competition by letting respectable foreign institutions set up their operations here." The government's reform plan calls for a pilot project in which a top foreign graduate school would open a Seoul branch in the latter half of next year. There is also talk of allowing foreign private secondary schools to set up shop.

Others see a glimmer of hope in the info-tech revolution. With more than 40% of Korea's households boasting broadband Internet access, Korean students could one day learn at home. In the past two years, more than 500 education Web sites have been launched to teach everything from English to math to graphic design.

It will be years, however, before the tech revolution has a significant impact on Korean education. And government reforms may take just as long to pay off. In the meantime, more and more parents such as Choi will look overseas--even if it means splitting up the family. "The trend is a source of optimism," says Kang Bong Kyun, president of the Korea Development Institute and a former Finance Minister. "It underlines the importance Koreans attach to education." True, but that assumes kids studying overseas today will return to help build Korea tomorrow.

By Moon Ihlwan in Seoul

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