Contemporary Education System: The Effect of Globalization

“Globalization has existed for many centuries as a process by which cultures influence one another and become more alike through trade, immigration, and the exchange of information and ideas.” (Arnett, 2002). In the recent decades, especially during the mid-1990s, the term globalization has been used to describe the current state of the world when the interconnectedness in global trade and communication has become very prominent. South Korea is one of the most economically successful in the world with international trade agreements for import and export goods. International companies like Samsung, LG, and Hyundai have emerged into the global market and has proven its success and competitiveness with other global corporations. With this continuous growth in the global market, what does this mean for the education system.

Leading up to the Globalization

After the Japanese occupation in 1945, Korea was separated by the occupation of the Soviet Union in the north and the U.S. in the South. When the Soviet Union refused the comply with the resolution proposed by the United Nations, the North Korean troops supported by the Soviet Union attacked South Korea with no forewarning declaring the start of the Korean War on June 25, 1950 (Lee, 2005). After the Korean War in 1953, North and South Korea where divided by a 155-mile demilitarized zone that is guarded by heavy arms.

Since the separation of the nation, the predominantly agricultural South Korea was ready to make changes as the Republic of Korea. In 1962, South Korea launched a five-year economic development plan series that brought such tremendous economic growth that it was known as the “Miracle on the Han River” (Lee, 2005; Thorton, 2009). From 1965 to 1990,South Korea underwent immense change to their economy providing more opportunities to those with an education. According to the Science and Technology Institute, South Korea’s focus in the 1960s was on expansion and export; in the 70s, the focus was development heavy and on the chemistry industry; and in recent years, the focus is on growth in high technologies – including bio-, nano-, information, environment, and cultural technologies (as cited in Lee, 2005, p. 14).

Globalization Changing the Education System

The changes in the development of the country changed the needs in the focus on the human resources. Since the economic growth in the 1960s, further opportunities in the private sector emerged for those with a higher education, and the growth in white-collar jobs also demanded a highly educated labor force (Lee & Brinton, 1996). According to Green (1999), the new jobs that have been created are highly professional, technical, and administrative. In recent years, there has also been a increase manufacturing and service related positions.

Since the economic growth in the 1960s, there has been an increase in the enrollment in all levels of the education system. The strategic plan of 1962 also helped establish the 6-3-3-4 system (6 years of elementary, 3 years of junior high, 3 years of senior high, and 4 years of university), which opened up access to education for all children. Enrollment reached 90% for elementary schools in the early 1960s, and similarly for junior high by the 1980s and for senior high in 1990. As enrollment increased in all levels, there was a need to push for tertiary education and specialized areas of knowledge.

In order to enhance industrial and economic competitiveness in the interconnected market, knowledge in science, technology, and English have been of increasing importance in recent years. South Korea has been part of the global market since the 1980s and starting from the mid-1990s have shown the world their strength in various industries, including education. Companies such as Samsung and Hyundai have become well-known in the global market as, respectively, one of the strongest technology and automotive companies in recent decades.

In the mid-1990s, understand the need to enhance competitiveness, President Kim Young-Sam (inaugurated in February 1993) pushed for an educational reform. The “Presidential Commission on Education Reform” devised an educational reform blueprint that focused on the five areas of reform as requested by President Kim:

  1. create development strategies that assists Korea in evolving into an advanced nation
  2. create policies to harness manpower to enhance cooperation and competition in the international society
  3. create a national management system to help Korean engage in the global society
  4. cultivate people’s creativity
  5. form a social structure that combines spiritual culture, individual character, and material prosperity (Lee, 2005)

This push for an educational reform increased the quality of the workforce and ultimately enhancing the technology and productivity of the nation. According to the Korean Ministry of Education in 1997 (as cited in Lee, 2005), “Education in South Korea has provided a means of upward mobility in social classes based on a meritocracy system, and expanded educational opportunities have made it possible for everybody to have a chance to move into a higher socio-economic status. In addition, education has played a role in the rediscovery and appreciation of traditional values as Korea encountered increasing numbers of foreign cultures through globalization.”

The Rise of Hagwon

However, “the expansion of education has brought the enlargement and development of the education industry and created a great demand for teachers, school facilities and buildings, and various kinds of educational equipment and materials” (Lee, 2005). South Korea’s participation in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) since 2000 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) brought on a lot of pressure to the educational system and students. Since the implementation of the PISA in 2000, South Korea has consistently proved to the world their strength in these test results. This resulted in the need to ensure that South Korean students are receiving the education that they need by the time they are 15 years old to score well in such tests.

Additionally, with studies that show that 510 million people around the world speak English as their mother tongue and another 350 million are bilingual English speakers, and Koreans being the least capable in spoken English ability among their counterparts in 12 Asian countries (Korean Herald, 2003), there has been a recent push to enhance the English abilities of the nation’s citizens. According to Lee and Brinton (1999), “if English is used freely as the ‘lingua franca’ of business in the region, this will draw foreign investment to South Korea.” Therefore in recent years, there has been a push for the communicative language learning methodology rather than the traditional techniques of rote memorization and grammar-translation.

To accommodate for the expansion in education, the training for students to score well on international exams like PISA, and the enhancement English abilities, parents and students began to seek outside help because the regular schools were not enough to give the students the competitiveness needed for the market. In the late 1990s, private after school academic institutions began to fill this gap. These institutions are called hagwon.

Since the inception of hagwon in the late 1990s, it has become increasingly popular in the past decade. Students are going to different hagwons to enhance their skills in various subjects, including science, history, math, arts, and English. Controversial issues have revolved around hagwon, mainly due to their expensive fees, the late hours that students stay in school until, and the lack of regulation from the government on fraudulent companies.

The Next Steps

Because of much controversies over hagwons and the educational system, the current of South Korea, President Park (inaugurated February 2013), have been working with the Seoul education chief, Moon Young-lin, to provide better career education for students to increase their competition in the job market. Moon mentions in a recent Korean Herald article, “Korean students don’t really have time to be happy because of all the pressure to get good grades, get into a good university, get a fine job and then make good money” (Oh, 2013). This plan to help increase practical skills for students while not burdening them with test taking.

Whichever path students choose to follow, globalization is inevitable and will continue to effect the way they learn. The government will continue to use the trend of globalization to ensure the internationalization of the nation and its people. Consequently, in technological advanced nation like Korea, many private companies will also argue that they will provide the best fit to students in training them for the global market. As we can see, hagwons are still highly popular in the South Korea today and will always be seen as a benefit in becoming more competitive. It is the Korean culture that is influencing the increase of educational resources because it is believed that the more educated one gets to further up the socioeconomic ladder one can get.

Since education will always be highly regarded, with the controversies of the hagwon and the expensive study abroad programs, the next educational reform could potentially focus on the overall change of the education system. There might be changes in teacher training and promoting different approaches to the way students can learn more effectively and more stress-free. 

For more information about that current education system, check out the videos on the Interesting Videos page. 


Arnett, J.J. (2002). The Psychology of Globalization. American Psychologist. 57(10), 774-783.

Green, A. (1999): Education and globalization in Europe and East Asia: Convergent and divergent trends. Journal of Education Policy, 14(1), 55-71.

Lee, D.J. (2005). Globalization and South Korean educational reform. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Florida State University, FL.

Lee, S. & Brinton, M.C. (1996). Elite education and social capital: The case of South Korea. Sociology of Education, 69, 177-192.

Oh, K.W. (2013, March 27). A shift toward ‘education for happiness’. The Korean Herald. Retrieved from

The Korean Herald (2003, October 24). Roh Supports English as 2nd Official Language. The Korean Herald. Retrieved from

Thorton, J.G. (2009). Learning English as a second language in South Korea: Perceptions of 2nd year college and university students and their English speaking instructors. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). The University of Southern Queensland, Australia.