A few weeks ago a small group of young Koreans approached us on a busy street of Jeonju. They were all undergrad students spending a weekend together surveying foreigners for touristic data and getting them to sign a carton cut-out turned into a giant visitors book. After exchanging names and nationalities, they were surprise to see a group as diverse as ours. It begged the question: ’how did you all get together?’ … ‘we’re all Yonsei students‘.
We knew what followed. They unisonaly wowed and after holding their voices for a few more seconds another student stepped forward and added that his cousin was also studying at Yonsei. The group nodded in approbation.
This is just one of the many situations SKY students are used to in Korea, a nation glutted with graduates. For Koreans in their early 20s, not being a student is out of the question: 82% of all high school students go to University, highest rate of all OECD countries, and out of Korea’s 50M inhabitants, 3.8M are currently university students.
When the GFC began dooming Europe’s economies in 2008, reports on Spain’s overqualified workers mushroomed. My sensitivities for skill imbalances heightened, nothing worried me more than the looming job prospects before my eyes. But looking at Korea’s case, I’d say they are already ahead of us and even got there faster: “as late as 1977, fewer than 5 percent of Korean 18- to 22-year-olds went to college.”
In short, this is the story of how South Korea has come to count 40 public universities and more than 400 private colleges. Many of these will have to shut their doors in the coming years as the birth rate continues to plummet shrinking the numbers of aspiring graduates. Some estimate than in a few years, university students will outnumber those in high school. Hold on to your seats!
But this is in no-one’s mind yet. The present is a freshmen’s zenith, and these guys have it tougher than in any other modern educated nation. SKY applicants need to be among the top 2% performers in the university entry exams to be considered. Getting into one of the top institutions is more than just a matter of pride and self-achievement: graduates are given preference in civil examinations and other industry-access exams.
Aside from undergoing 18 years of parental pressure to become overachievers, young Koreans are socially fragmented since their first day in university.
“All my family wanted me to be was an 이대 girl, but I hated everything about it” That’s how a close friend of mine summed up her brief time as a Korean university student before opting out to Australia to pursue the life and studies she really wanted. She believes university in Korea is barely about a learning endeavour and becoming effective thinkers, it’s all about status.
이데 (I-de) is short for Ewha Womans University, the nation’s most prestigious female institution. Being an 이대 graduate does not only get you a better job but also a wealthier husband, quite possibly a Yonsei graduate. “Girls would reject guys from other universities, they would only date guys attending top institutions.”
“연세여 사랑한다” chanted during the 2011 Akaraka Festival. One of many Yonsei University’s cheering songs.
In the vicinity of these two universities, couples hold hands in black leather jackets, a popular university merchandise that advertises college, major and grad year of the owner. At night, in the same streets, classmates leave bars chanting Yonsei cheers and head for the subway station holding their student IDs, which also function as transport cards at an extra cost.
But if there’s a true instance of university-devotion, that has to be the university yearly festivals. Yonsei for example, organises a 3-day festival every May to commemorate its foundation. The closing ceremony (Akaraka), is an 8-hour sprint of K-Pop and mass cheering that bears similarities with hooligan songs or, ironically, their northern neighbour’s mass festivals.
Whether you think such devotion is justified or not, it’s a celebration of elitism in institutions that aim to “educate leaders who will contribute to humanity”. As I mentioned in the previous post, I am fortunate to be spending a semester here. It truly is a great institution, but its elitist nature and the way it tears young people apart doesn’t cease to shock me.