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South Korea - Constitutional & Legal Foundations

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The MOE is in charge of all education—general as well as professional or technical. However, the Ministries of Finance and Economy (MOFE), Science and Technology (MOST), and Labor (MOL) all participate in formulating and implementing policies related to education and professional training. For example, the MOFE allocates government funds for education, setting economic and social development as its priority. MOST's priority is science and technology, in accordance with the government's determination to make Korea an advanced nation in basic research and technology. MOL, with reducing unemployment its priority, engages in vocational training.

The Education Law promulgated in 1949 adopted the motto Hong'ik in'gan ("to benefit humanity")—attributed to Korea's legendary founder Tan'gun—as the guiding principle of Korean education. The prevailing contemporary philosophy, however, is a strong sense of egalitarianism.

The Constitutional Law of the Republic of Korea (Article 31) declares:

  • All citizens have an equal right to receive an education corresponding to their abilities.
  • All citizens who have children to support are responsible at least for their elementary education and other education as provided by law.
  • Compulsory education is free of charge.
  • Independence, professionalism, and political impartiality of education and the autonomy of institutions of higher learning are guaranteed under the conditions as prescribed by law.
  • The state promotes lifelong education.
  • Fundamental matters pertaining to the educational system—including schools and lifelong education, administration, finance, and the status of teachers—are determined by law.

The Education Law, promulgated in 1949, stipulates a school system on the 6-3-3-4 plan with extra years offered for kindergarten and graduate work (including medicine and dentistry) and other variations in the case of special schools. The following levels of education are chartered:

  • Preschool education: kindergartens
  • Elementary education: elementary schools and civic schools
  • Middle school education: middle schools and civic high schools
  • High school education: high schools and trade high schools
  • Special schools
  • Miscellaneous schools.

The law specifies goals for the schools by level and regulates their administration and supervision. The elementary and secondary school curricula, established by MOE by 1955, were amended in 1963, 1973 and 1981. Both public and private schools have adopted standardized school curricula and time allotments for each subject. The revised curricula for elementary and middle schools was published on 30 December 1997 and those for kindergartens and special schools on 30 June 1998. They are being implemented, starting with kindergartens in 2000 and continuing through 2002.

Following the initial pursuit of the ideal of democratic education, the Korean government turned its attention to producing highly select academic talents who would excel in teaching and research and be internationally competitive in the "knowledge-based" twenty-first century. Such an elite was deemed necessary not only for educating the future generation but also for the sake of international exchanges and cooperation in the global environment.

One of the government's most daring education plans for the twenty-first century has been what it calls Brain Korea 21 (BK21). This policy, launched in the spring of 1999, aims to lift a handful of institutions of higher education to the rank of world-class research universities. The government allocated 1.4 trillion won (about US$1.2 billion) for higher education over 7 years. This budget made it possible for graduate schools to hire faculty with reduced teaching loads, teaching only graduate courses, so that they may concentrate on basic research. It also gave graduate students in those selected schools generous grants for tuition, living allowances, and study abroad. Funds also were used to improve the infrastructure for academic research. Funds are provided to research teams within an institution or between colleagues of different institutions domestically and internationally, after a rigorous evaluation of the education reform carried out by the institution the team belongs to. Through this project, the government hopes to nurture three to four internationally known research universities.

Another $285 million, 7-year project, which was begun in 1999, promotes specialized programs in each regional university to meet the needs of local industry and, it is hoped, to be highly competitive internationally. An important benefit of this project was thought to be decentralization of programs of excellence, which traditionally have been concentrated in Seoul.

However, the BK21 project is severely criticized by many as elitist or as a scheme that will make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Although some support has been provided for provincial graduate schools, most special funds have gone to those few in Seoul. This, combined with the continuous growth in the number of higher education institutions in Korea, has contributed to what is viewed by some as a minor crisis in the university system, especially at less prestigious private universities in the regions, due to the "domestic brain drain," more from rural areas to Seoul (Fouser 15).


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