South Koreans are second to none in their passion for education. They attach great importance to this, especially for their children.
Education has been the driving force behind what Korea is today. In fact, most Koreans managed to get out of poverty through education in the 1960s and 1970s.
There is no doubt that the nation could not have achieved brilliant economic growth if Koreans had not harbored such a high degree of passion for learning. This passion has become the envy of people around the world.
Even U.S. President Barack Obama praised the Korean education system last March. He called on the United States to look to South Korea in adopting longer school days and after-school programs for American children to help them survive in an era of global competition.
Koreans deserve the praise as their enthusiasm has made it possible for the nation to realize its dream of becoming one of the G20 economies and a functioning democracy at the same time in a short period.
But now, they have come to realize that they have gone too far. Ironically, the very driving force behind the country's economic success has already put a yoke on both parents and students, dimming the prospects of the nation.
Koreans spend a total of 21 trillion won ($19 billion) every year on private tutoring for their children, according to Statistics Korea. This means, the monthly tutoring cost stands at over 200,000 won for each student.
What's more serious is that the excessive aspiration has brought about the problem of "over-education" and "over-qualification."
Nearly four out of every 10 young workers in their 20s and 30s said they were overeducated, according to a recent survey conducted by the Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training.
The finding indicates that the problem has reached a critical point where the nation's socioeconomic structure is threatened. The ratio of college graduates to the total population surged to 43.2 percent in 2010 from a mere 6.6 percent in 1970. It is a matter of time before the figure surpasses 50 percent.
About 80 percent of high school graduates usually enter colleges, the highest in the world. This creates a larger number of college graduates who cannot find jobs. Only 55 percent of them landed jobs in 2010, down from 74 percent in 2005.
Over-education has led to a waste of money. Raising and educating a child until college graduation costs 260 million won on average, according to a 2009 report by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs. It is certain that the amount exceeds 300 million won now.
Over-education has contributed to Koreans' shunning "3-D" (dirty, difficult and dangerous) jobs, forcing the nation to bring in non-skilled foreign workers. In a word, the education bubble has distorted the labor market structure, undermining the nation's competitiveness.
More and more people with college diplomas have to work as bank tellers, clerks and other simple labor jobs that have long been filled by high school graduates. If they don't take such positions, many of them have no other choice but to remain unemployed.
Simply put, over-education has caused over-qualification and underemployment. This is a waste of both human and financial resources.
Overeducated and overqualified college graduates find it hard to come to terms with being underemployed. They cannot perform to the best of their abilities, inevitably lowering their labor productivity. The problem brings a huge loss to individuals as well as society.
It is time to stop the dog-eat-dog competition among schoolchildren for college entrance. Restoring the dilapidated school education and fostering creativeness and character development is much more important than getting admissions to universities
Frankly speaking, schoolchildren, parents and teachers are not happy with the current education system that is no longer sustainable.
Almost every president of Korea has shouted the empty slogan of education reform over the past decades. Disappointedly, no leaders have succeeded in getting education back on track. Of course, this reform is easier said than done.
President-elect Park Geun-hye should recognize that she cannot make people happy without freeing students from the heavy load of study and relieving parents of private tutoring costs for their children.
Most of all, all members of our society must change their perception about education. Too much respect for academic background and careerism will only destroy the spirit of equal opportunity and fair competition.
Let's build a society in which people cannot be judged not by their academic background, but by their ability, integrity and performance.