’My dream is to reshape Korea’s education’
By Yun Suh-young
More than a year has passed since Lee Ju-ho took the helm of the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. Reflecting on his past year, Lee talked about some of the changes in our educational system in an interview at his office. Following is a summarized text of the interview. ― ED.
Question: How do you evaluate your achievements in the past year?
Answer: I think we’re seeing the effects of our policies slowly and steadily. A lot of positive changes are taking place at schools.
Our main goal is to take good care of all students. In the past, only those who went to top-notch colleges were recognized. Today, the Meister vocational high schools are being recognized as well.
Schools are differentiating themselves from others and are evolving in a positive direction. High schools specializing in foreign language education are doing well and so are private autonomous high schools. They are moving toward fostering creative global talents.
Also, the reliance on private education decreased while basic academic achievement levels of students have risen. Private education was one of the largest factors disrupting fair education because only the rich could afford to pay high tuition.
Q: What’s your plan on the restructuring of universities?
A: The restructuring of universities has just begun. I know it’s not an easy task. Some people oppose it but it’s not as bad as we thought it would be. Recently I visited Wonkwang University in North Jeolla Province, one of the 43 private schools that were denied state subsidies, to meet the president and the chairman of the board.
Both said they would take the restructuring measures as an opportunity for reform. Perhaps colleges didn’t think we would tackle the issue in such a strong manner.
We warned them in advance of possible disadvantages but I don’t think they really believed we would push it through. They were pretty complacent. Only after they were ordered to restructure did they realize the seriousness of the matter.
Q: Some universities have taken issue with the method of evaluation. What do you think of their complaints?
A: I don’t agree. The evaluation was carried out based on a 100 percent objective index and we used eight indexes. Zero subjectivity. They were officially announced and they were the ones we mainly used for evaluations. So if universities say they have a problem with it, then I don’t understand why.
Q: You mentioned that the one of the changes at university level was the tuition cuts. But parents and students still say the benefits are too small and too limited.
A: We secured a budget of 1.5 trillion won to use as scholarships for university students next year. This will decrease the average tuition by 5 percent and decrease tuition for lower-income students by an average of 22 percent. This is the first time such a large amount is spent on universities regardless of public or private. I don’t think the amount is small at all. The tuition level will remain like this nationwide for the time being. This budget is for next year and the one for the year after will probably have to be re-discussed at the National Assembly.
Q: There are conflicts between liberals and conservatives over various issues in schools. One of them is the new ordinance that frees students from dress codes. What’s your take on the issue?
A: I think schools should be left to decide dress codes at their own discretion according to their internal articles. That’s the education ministry’s position. We should leave it to the individual schools for autonomy and diversity. These are things that should be regulated by school rules, not something that municipal or provincial education offices can order down.
For example, in the case of the issue of corporal punishment, the ministry issued guidelines on banning direct physical punishment. However, in the case of punishments to discipline students through physical exercise, like running, the ministry can’t tell the schools what to do and not to do. It’s completely up to the schools to decide. The same applies to dress codes. We can’t tell schools to uniformly remove dress codes. We’ve had conflicts with the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education about this issue, which we’ll try to resolve.
Q: Despite universities’ efforts to attract more foreign students, the number of students from foreign countries studying here is still small. Doesn’t this mean our education is weak in terms of globalization or global competitiveness?
A: The number of foreign students in our universities has exceeded 80,000 and is reaching nearly 100,000. I do think that we should check whether these students are being properly educated, though.
Globalization has indeed been a hot topic for a while. We started the World Class University (WCU) project in 2008 to promote globalization centering on research universities. We attracted famous faculty from abroad to enhance our universities’ competitiveness. We even started a project this year called World Class College (WCC) where we chose seven out of 146 two-year vocational colleges to turn them into globally competitive schools. I think many of the colleges are quite excited about it. There will be 21 WCCs by 2013 because we will select seven colleges every year until then. We’re continuously promoting the WCC so awareness about the project will soon increase.
The United States is also nurturing some community colleges that way. They meet the demands of newly rising industries.
Q: U.S. President Barack Obama has spoken positively of Korean education pretty often in his speeches. Koreans may think this is strange as we see a lot of problems in our educational system. What is your opinion as education minister?
A: Every country uses the case of another country as leverage for reform. We always talk about the Finnish educational system as a model to follow. I think it sends a message like, “They do it this well so we should do well, too.”
I think our country is a “talent power” with its strengths in education and science technology. We’re not a military power or an economic power, but a “talent power” nurturing talented individuals.
We have always thought there were problems in our cramming educational culture or our entrance exam-focused education. But we’re changing the systems gradually and this government has seen some visible results.
When we go abroad, foreigners recognize the quality of our teachers, the educational zeal of parents, and the smartness of our students. These are the most essential parts of education. We just haven’t had the right system until now.
Although President Obama probably used our case to stimulate reform in his country, he must have mentioned our education because there were indeed strengths in it. We’re definitely moving in a better direction.
Q: What are your opinions about English education here?
A: We have adopted a new system to increase the number of Korean teachers qualified in teaching English in English. There are about 7,000 to 8,000 such teachers, probably exceeding the number of foreign English teachers.
Also, children learn English for more hours and learn speaking and writing as well as reading and listening which were in the existing curriculum. We’re also going to adopt a state-administered English proficiency test starting next year. The National English Ability Test, which focuses on evaluating speaking and writing, might replace the College Scholastic Ability Test.
Although private education hasn’t dwindled yet, I can definitely say public English education has strengthened.
Q: In the process of increasing the number of Korean teachers for English conversation classes, many foreign English language teachers had to leave due to budget cuts for foreign teachers, especially in Gyeonggi Province.
A: Yes, but I think Korean English teachers are just as capable and competent as foreign teachers. Most of the teachers were in the top 5 percent in their schools and they speak English just as well as native speakers these days. The classrooms have changed as well. We now have classrooms specifically arranged for English teaching purposes. Still, there won’t be any drastic cuts in the number of foreign teachers.
Q: You have worked in the education sector for a long time. What are your future plans?
A: The core of career education is to give hopes and dreams to students. My dream is to enhance our education and develop our science technology. My dream isn’t to hold a specific post but to reshape our educational system because our future depends on talented individuals. I really want to contribute to nurturing talented young individuals and help them brighten up this world. That really is my dream. I won’t run for the general elections next year as some have speculated.