Education has been the key to Korea's rise, but there are tough economic decisions to face, says Tim Lankester
There was a wisecrack doing the rounds of Seoul that goes as follows. "What is the difference between a high-school student who sleeps three hours a night from one who sleeps four hours?" Answer: "The one who sleeps three hours gets into university; the other doesn't."
Such is the competition to get into Korean universities, particularly the leading ones such as Seoul National, Korea and Yonsei. Almost every parent in this country of 46 million people wants their child to go on to higher education. The system has responded magnificently, with more than 40 per cent of young people taking four-year university courses and more than 30 per cent enrolled in two-year junior college programmes. There are still disappointed applicants and pressure on government to provide more places. And this despite the large majority of students paying full tuition costs - up to $5,000 (Pounds 3,100) per year - at private institutions which make up the bulk of the system, while even in the public institutions they pay around $2,500. Scholarships are scarce, and help with maintenance is minimal.
Part of this enthusiasm for higher education is driven by Korea's Confucian tradition. It is said that the secret wish of every leading businessman and politician is to be a professor. The best universities enjoy tremendous prestige and influence. The other factor is economic. At national and individual level, it has long been recognised that economic success is crucially linked to high educational achievement.
While in basic education Korea appears to have achieved very high standards indeed (outstripping most industrial nations in the latest international tests organised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), in higher education the position is less favourable. This is not altogether surprising for a country at Korea's stage of development. Though comparisons are difficult to make, quality and standards in the very top universities at undergraduate level may rank roughly alongside those of middle-rated universities in Europe. However, there is probably a much longer tail. At post-graduate level, quality is also said to be very uneven - hence the desire of many graduates to continue their studies overseas. In research, Korean universities are still realtively weak, though there is close to a national fixation with the idea of one day winning a Nobel prize.
Some of the problems derive from the sheer speed of the expansion. Most problems are common to those in other countries: excessive student-staff ratios; inadequate teaching skills; promotions for reasons other than academic merit; and lenient marking. This last is said to be prompted by the disgrace that is attached to failure and examiners' reluctance to impose it.
Business leaders are concerned about the quality of graduates. At the same time, graduates are no longer finding it so easy to find jobs that they deem acceptable, while there is an increasing shortage of young people willing to undertake blue-collar work - suggesting to some that the size of the university sector may have run somewhat ahead of national need. Shortages of factory labour have contributed to the rapid rise in wages - one reason why the big conglomerates are now investing heavily overseas.
Any visitor to Korea cannot but be mightily impressed by the transformation in less than 40 years from a country with African poverty levels to today's economic powerhouse. This transformation, and education's own record, suggest that higher education in Korea will be able to tackle its problems successfully. But its success or otherwise cannot be divorced altogether from the broader economic and political challenges and uncertainties facing the country. After all, the sort of economic growth rates achieved by Korea -9.4 per cent on average in the Eighties - make improvement in the education system a lot easier than with UK growth rates of around 3 per cent.
Korea's rogue neighbour to the North is one such uncertainty. Though suffering from a desperate famine which South Korea is helping to alleviate. North Korea's long-range missiles and massed forces pose a continuing threat. Reunification, should the regime in the North collapse, is in theory everyone's dream. But it would cause massive transitional problems for the South. Korean economists have become experts on German reunification and have concluded that the Korean problem would be far greater.
There are other economic uncertainties too. To a Western observer, the concern expressed over this year's slowdown to an estimated 6 per cent growth (newspapers describe it as a slump) seems a bit overdone. None the less, there have recently been one or two spectacular business failures, the currency has been under some pressure and many commentators argue that radical economic reforms are needed. They say that government regulation and intervention and its cosy relationship with the conglomerates and the banks need to be substantially dismantled if Korea is to remain competitive. The government has made moves in this direction, but some worry that the new democratic politics - while, from other points of view, a great improvement on the authoritarian rule of previous regimes - may not be able to deliver what is needed on theeconomic front.
In the meantime, there are good opportunities for British higher education. While the US, for historical reasons, will continue to be the most favoured country for post graduate study, there is no reason why - with stronger marketing -our universities should not do better.
Now that Korea is a "world player" and a big investor in Britain, we need a better understanding of contemporary Korea; and Korea's rich language and literature, history, art, music, culture and society are all of great intrinsic interest. The Centre of Korean Studies at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, which has been generously assisted by the Korea Foundation, is committed to offering the best possible learning and research opportunities in this fascinating and important field.
*Sir Tim Lankester, Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies, has just returned from a visit to Seoul