Korean citizens between 55 and 64 years old score significantly lower than the OECD average in the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). Young Koreans on the other hand compete with the best. This staggering achievement impressed and inspired Yves Leterme, Deputy Secretary-General of the OECD. “This shows that effective government policy really pays off and that it increases the chances of young people.” What can other countries learn from this sheer determination to develop a knowledge-based economy?
Booming economy, booming education
The OECD’s ‘Education at a Glance’ shows that South Korea has the highest number of 25-34 year olds people that attained tertiary education, 64 percent in comparison to 39 percent for the OECD on average. Of the 55 to 64 years old only 13 percent attained higher education, where the OECD average is 24 percent.
On average for the OECD, “younger adults have higher tertiary attainment rates than older adults by about 15 percentage points. In some countries, the difference between generations is significant. In Korea, for example, there is a 51 percentage-point gap between these two age groups in tertiary attainment levels,” Education at a Glance shows. How did the Koreans achieve this?
Koreans that were between 55 and 64 years old in 2012 were born between 1948 and 1957. A lot has changed since then. The Republic of Korea was established in the year of birth of the oldest people in this cohort. Devastated by war, the Republic of Korea was poor, and most of its citizens illiterate. In 1957, South Korea had a lower per capita GDP than Ghana; by 2008 it was 17 times as high as Ghana’s.
The road towards success can be summarized by the slogan of the Third Korean Republic that existed between 1963 and 1972: “Development First, Unification Later”. The booming economy improved living standards and ever-increasing job opportunities accelerated the desire among South Koreans for education, especially for universities and colleges.
In 1960 less than twenty percent of the population between fifteen and seventeen years attended high school, in 1970 this increased to 29.3 percent and to 40.5 percent in 1975. In 1970, 9.3 percent of young Koreans attended college or university, a number that has risen ever since. Nowadays, South Korean 15-year olds score second in the PISA scores for reading, while most of their grandparents were illiterate at their age.
The Rise of the Tiger Mum
Was Yves Leterme right, is South Korea a proof that government spending boosts the quality of education and the skills of its citizens? The Korean republic spends around 16 percent of its government expenditure on education, or 7.6 percent of its GDP compared to 5.9 percent on average for the OECD. Could a cultural factor not be of equal importance?
“Unlike Finland, whose high ranking in PISA can be attributed to excellent public schooling, Korea’s investment in human capital is significantly influenced by private investment. Parents with school-age children spend close to 25 percent of their income on education and all parents spend a large portion of their income on supplementary educational materials. Private education cost 3.95% of GDP in 2006. According to colleagues in South Korea, students acquire about 30 percent of their formal learning through their schooling, and the rest through supplementary measures,” writes Mike Lloyd from EduTech. Government spending combined with ‘tiger mums’ might be Korea’s recipe for success.
Japan, that other Asian tiger that was destroyed by war and also created a world-class technological sector, has the best results in the PIAAC survey. The difference between Japan and South Korea is that although young Japanese score higher than their Korean peers, their results are meager in comparison to older Japanese. Will South Korea take the lead in the next PIAAC survey or is it time, now the development is achieved, for unification?