Coronavirus fails to dampen South Korea's fever for exam success

South Korea's coronavirus outbreak has kept schools shut but has done little to cool the cut-throat education fervour, keeping cram schools bustling with students preparing for university entrance exams.
South Korean soldiers clean doors with disinfectant at a cram school in Daegu, South Korea, on March 15, 2020.
South Korean soldiers clean doors with disinfectant at a cram school in Daegu, South Korea, on March 15, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS) - Choi Young-eun is so concerned about her teenagers' education as South Korea's schools stay shut that she has been sending them to a private tuition centre to make sure they don't miss out.

Choi, a stay-at-home mum of two high schoolers, is one of the millions of parents keeping South Korea's cut-throat "hagwon", or cram schools, in business even as the government imposes tighter restrictions on gatherings in a bid to contain a major coronavirus outbreak.

"It would be nice if hagwons were completely shut and students don't have to go altogether, because I don't want my kids to be the ones missing out," Choi told Reuters.

South Korea has delayed the beginning of the school year by about a month as Asia's fourth-largest economy grapples with the virus that has infected more than 9,600 of its people and killed almost 160.

The government has urged people to stay at home, and maintain social distancing, but none of this has dented the enthusiasm for cram schools, part of a US$17 billion (S$24 billion) private tuition industry that Koreans believe sets students up for a placement at an elite university, and life-long success.

Data from the Seoul government showed that nine out of 10 of these schools were open last week, an increase from mid-March, when 60 percent were running.

"Many parents called us and asked for classes to restart,"said Lim Sung-ho, chief-executive of Jongro Academy, one of the largest hagwon franchises in Korea with some 6,000 students.

Like other schools, Jongro shut down when the government put the country on red alert in late February, but they have since reopened and attendance at all 22 outlets is almost 100 percent, Lim said.

Class sizes are smaller, however, as the school implements mandatory social distancing guidelines: 24 students now sit at least one metre apart, down from the usual 60, he said, adjustments that have cost at least one-sixth of the academy's annual revenue.

 
 
 

"Parents said it's safer and better for studying when children are under the watch of hagwons," Lim told Reuters.

Last year, South Koreans spent more than 21 trillion won (US$17 billion) on private tuition, government data shows, as three out of four children - from grade 1 to grade 12 - attended a cram school. There were more than 127,000 teaching centres registered as of 2019.

The ultimate goal is a high score at the annual national university placement exam, followed by a university degree, which can make all the difference to job, and even marriage, prospects in a country in which almost a quarter of all youth aged 15 to 29 years are effectively unemployed.

Every November, at least half a million students sit for the exam, and it is this competition that makes it very difficult for parents to give up on tuition. This year, the university exam is set for Nov. 19, but the government is expected to delay it because of the virus outbreak.

 
 

Choi is taking no chances. In addition to cram school, she has increased the home tutoring for her children to make up for the classes they missed.

"I wish the exam could be delayed," she said. "I'm spending much more on education because of this coronavirus."