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Efficiency and governance: The case of South Korea

Chae-Chun Gim
Traduction(s) :
Efficience et gouvernance : l’exemple de la Corée du Sud


Depuis la fondation de la République de Corée dans les années 1940, le système scolaire coréen accorde la priorité à l’excellence et à l’efficience. Ce double objectif a été poursuivi à travers la standardisation et la compétition. Le curriculum national, les instructions nationales pour l’évaluation et l’archivage des notes des élèves ainsi que le test d’entrée à l’université en sont autant d’exemples. Dans ce contexte, les bureaux régionaux et locaux de l’éducation et les établissements scolaires ont cherché en priorité à viser l’excellence et l’efficience. Toutefois, du fait des incidences négatives qu’a eues par le passé la politique nationale de standardisation et de promotion de l’efficience menée par le puissant gouvernement central, le pendule s’est mis à osciller dans le sens de l’égalité et du bien-être des élèves1. Actuellement, les autorités centrales et régionales incitent à une politique de conversion des établissements autonomes du secondaire supérieur en lycées d’enseignement général uniformisés. Cette évolution a suscité de violents conflits idéologiques et politiques au sein d’une société coréenne clivée en deux camps : l’un qui fait valoir la standardisation et l’efficience, l’autre qui souligne l’égalité et le bien-être des élèves. N’y a-t-il vraiment aucun moyen de résoudre les conflits entre excellence et efficience d’un côté, égalité et bien-être de l’autre ? Ce dilemme sur une question fondamentale est au cœur des problèmes actuellement posés à la politique éducative coréenne.

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  • 2 As of 2019, Korea has 17 metropolitan/provincial offices, 176 district offices, and 12,835 elementa (...)

1Korea has four different levels of governance: the central government (national), metropolitan/provincial offices of education (regional), district offices of education support (local), and schools.2 In Korea, the central government has been the prominent authority in policymaking and enforcement since the establishment of the Republic of Korea in 1948, due to the historical and cultural tradition of nearly a millennium of powerful central governments, from the Corea Dynasty of 918–1392 to the Choseon Dynasty of 1392–1910. Before the autonomy of the local government began to be emphasized in the early 1990s, the metropolitan/provincial superintendents were appointed by the president. After that, they were elected by the School Council members. Since 2006, they have been directly elected by local residents and the superintendent’s authority to make policies has been strengthened (Kim, 2017). The central government transferred much of its authority on elementary and secondary education to metropolitan/provincial education offices and schools around the year 2010. As a result, legally and institutionally much of the authority of the central government has been transferred to the local government, although in reality the central government is still very powerful. The district offices of education support remain true to their name, mainly “supporting” schools to implement policies and budgets determined by the metropolitan/provincial education offices, which are higher authorities, rather than making policy decisions themselves. The individual school has also had some authority to set its own policy since the introduction of the School Council system in 1998.

  • 3 The Korean government has tried to shift the employment of schoolteachers from the central governme (...)

2Despite the clear trend of authority delegation from the central government to metropolitan/provincial education offices or schools, the role of the central government in Korea will remain significant in the future for the following reasons. Firstly, as already mentioned above, under the influence of a long tradition of powerful central governments, the Korean people still tend to expect the central government to solve educational problems. Many citizens, including parents and teachers, expect the central government to address pending issues in school education, rather than for the regional or local education offices to do so.3 Secondly, school education has been an important issue in presidential elections in recent years. The examples of major educational pledges proposed in the 2012 and 2017 presidential elections are as follows. In the 2012 presidential election, the first pledge was to run a “free-semester program” that does away with written tests, such as mid-term and final exams, for one semester, to encourage students to find their own dreams and talents. The second pledge was that schools would run an “all-day care school” in which elementary-school students can stay until 5 p.m., when their parents pick them up after work, as well as an “all-day care class” that will stay open until 10 p.m. for those parents requesting additional care. In the 2017 presidential election, the first pledge was to implement a “high-school credit system” to expand the choice of subjects for high-school students. The second pledge was to convert special-purpose high schools and independent high schools that have the exclusive right to select students into general high schools that have students assigned to them.

3To win votes, presidential candidates in Korea will continue to offer pledges on education. Once elected, the president attempts to carry out his election pledges. The central government endeavours to persuade or in some cases even pressure the metropolitan/provincial education offices in various ways to keep the election pledges. In such circumstances, school education is nothing more than a political hostage and results in conflicts among different levels of governance. In other words, the education policy is, in all probability, less likely to succeed.

4It is widely agreed that the growth and development of Korean education in the past was facilitated by consistent and strong policy decisions and enforcement at the national level. A powerful national curriculum system that forced the same curriculum and class hours for all schools across the country, the provision of consistent guidelines for assessment and records of students’ grades, and the CSAT (College Scholastic Ability Test), which had been a main factor governing university admission in a thoroughly hierarchical system, were all symbols of the standardization and efficiency of Korean education (Gim, 2017a). There was widespread national consensus that school education should pursue excellence through competition, and therefore the main concern of education offices and schools was the efficient pursuit of such excellence.

5However, due to the adverse effects of both the central government’s unyielding authority and its aggressive promotion of the standardization and efficiency of school education, an increasing number of people have turned their attention to the human rights and wellbeing of students. The superintendents, especially those with a more progressive line of thinking in education, became more concerned with the human rights and welfare of students than with excellence and efficiency. The change has brought about a spread of ideological and political opposition throughout society between camps: one which emphasizes the market principles of selection and competition as well as efficient management through national standardization, and the other which stresses district autonomy and the human rights and wellbeing of students.

6For an education policy to succeed, the central government, metropolitan/provincial education offices, and schools must all be aligned with the policy or at least share its vision and goals. A good example is the free-semester program introduced in 2013. While the free-semester program, aiming to transform school education from exam-oriented competition into “authentic education” stressing student participation, expansion of choice, and career association, was conducted as a national initiative, the metropolitan/provincial education offices as well as schools and teachers all agreed on the purpose, content, and methods of the policy, and produced positive results through active participation at all levels. Despite the regime change in 2017, this policy has not only survived (which is rarely the case in Korea), but also expanded into a “year” program from a “semester” program.

7The success is underpinned by many factors (Gim, 2017b). First, the vision was shared among people belonging to different levels of government. It is widely agreed that educators have to give students freedom from standardized tests and provide students with freedom to explore their interests and dreams. Second, decision-making power was shared. The central government presented only the vision and direction of the policy and encouraged education offices and schools to take the initiative in decision-making on the specific contents and methods. Third, the implementation of the policy started with a small number of schools and expanded only when schools volunteered to partiticipate. The policy was introduced to only 42 schools for pilot study in the first year, and expanded to 811 schools (25% of all schools) that wished to participate in the second year; it expanded further in the third year and so on. Fourth, national education research institutes such as KEDI, KICE, and KRIVET actively participated to help schools and teachers in the implementation of the policy. They provided a variety of support including monitoring the program, the development and provision of instructional materials, and aiding the training of teachers and parents. Fifth, money matters. Additional financial support by the central government was provided for schools. Sixth, the policy succeeded in drawing public attention and support. The president of Korea, the prime minister, and ministers all publicly supported the program by visiting the pilot schools, and the various media covered the program as well.

8In the past six decades since the liberation from Japanese rule in 1945, excellence and efficiency have been the number-one value in school education, but in the recent decades, they have been replaced by equality and welfare issues such as the provision of free meals and uniforms for all students. As of 2019, the expansion of free meals to high-school students, the provision of free school uniforms, and the emphasis on students’ human rights and welfare as requirements for equal education are the major agenda for school education in Korea. On the other hand, the government is pushing for a policy to convert the relatively few autonomous high schools (i.e. elite schools) – such as special-purpose high schools and independent high schools, a symbol of selection and competition in the Korean education system – into standardized general high schools.


9To sum up, Korean people, including parents and teachers, are divided along the axis of value conflict between excellence and equality. Some argue that Korea, lacking natural resources, has achieved industrialization and democratization to the current level thanks to the excellence and efficiency of education, and that we must continue to pursue excellence and efficiency as the number-one value to survive increasingly fierce competition in the world ahead. Others argue that the pursuit of excellence and efficiency in education has outlived its usefulness and causes suffering for students, and that we should shift our priorities to the pursuit of equality and the wellbeing of students. While there is a consensus in Korea that “education for creativity” is crucial in preparing for the era of the fourth industrial revolution, the definition of “education for creativity” differs radically in each camp. Should we pursue creativity based on excellence and efficiency or creativity based on equality and wellbeing? One might say that fairness in pursuing excellence and equality at the same time is the answer. But it does not actually address the heart of the problem. It only leads to another question: What is fairness? How should we reach the midpoint for the resolution of conflicts between excellence/efficiency and equality/wellbeing in education? This is one of the most important and fundamental problems at the root of Korean education policies today.

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GIM C. C. (2017a): “Changes in elementary and secondary education policy”, in KIM S. B. et al., Historical Changes and Prospects of Educational Policy, Seoul: Seoul National University Press, p. 78–155.

GIM C. C. (2017b): “Reflections on the Free-Semester Program”, Korean Language , Education Research, vol. 52, no. 3, p. 7–35.

KIM S. B. (2017): “Changes in educational administration and policy”, in KIM S. B. et al. (eds.), Historical Changes and Prospects of Educational Policy, Seoul: Seoul National University Press, p. 524–587.

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1 Editor’s Note : See by the same author (2017) « Histoire du système éducatif sud-coréen », Revue internationale d’éducation de Sèvres, n° 76, p. 135-146. DOI : 10.4000/ries.6085.

2 As of 2019, Korea has 17 metropolitan/provincial offices, 176 district offices, and 12,835 elementary and secondary schools.

3 The Korean government has tried to shift the employment of schoolteachers from the central government to local governments for the past three decades but failed to do so for political reasons. School principals are still appointed by the president, and all teachers are officials of the central government rather than local government. School principals prefer to receive the certificate of appointment letter from the president, even though they are in reality appointed by the superintendent, due to its historic symbolism. Schoolteachers also desire to maintain their status as central government officials, even if in reality their personnel allocation complies with the superintendent's principles. The conversion of education professionals such as supervisors from central government employment to local government employment since 2013 has led to the contradiction that the supervisors of metropolitan/provincial education offices are local government employees, while the teachers who are supervised by them are all central government employees.

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Chae-Chun Gim, « Efficiency and governance: The case of South Korea », Revue internationale d’éducation de Sèvres [En ligne], Colloque 2019 : Conditions de réussite des réformes en éducation, mis en ligne le 11 juin 2019, consulté le 21 juillet 2019. URL :

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Chae-Chun Gim

Yeungnam University, South Korea
Dr Gim is a professor at Yeungnam University in the Republic of Korea. He received both his BA and MA in Education from Seoul National University and obtained his PhD in curriculum and educational policy from UCLA. As a professor, he has taught curriculum and instruction in the Department of Education. He has worked as education advisor to the President of the Republic of Korea, the Vice-Minister of Education in Korea, and the President of KEDI (Korean Educational Development Institute). He has also worked as a board member for IARTEM (International Association for Research on Textbooks and Educational Media) and for CERI (Center for Educational Research and Innovation) at the OECD.

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