How Come Did South Korea Achieve Such a Height?
South Korea has been traditionally occupying leading positions in global rankings based on IQ levels of its citizens. Education has become a cult in this country: a school day may start at 7:30 am and end at 10 pm. But which is even less believable, there is a school employee who walks around classrooms, checks on pupils and wakes them up if they fell asleep. A young researcher from the Republic of Korea (ROK) explains how this obsession with knowledge and pursuit of success often end in.
Donghee Lee, a PhD student at Saint-Petersburg Mining University, says "Competition is a major driving force in South Korea. We must always be the best: at school, at university, at work. While Russian people with low and medium-income can still be happy, this is totally impossible for South Koreans. As long as we feel unsuccessful, we believe our existence is meaningless. If my fellow countryman gets expelled from school or fired from the job, it usually serves as a source of severe depression, occasionally leading to mental disorders or alcoholism. Sometimes an outcome it comes to is a tragic death. Every year, once the results of the National College Scholastic Aptitude Test are announced, some young people take their own lives. Teenagers spend too much time studying and simply cannot stand emotions involved, for a single exam determines their entire fate. Perhaps, this could be one of the reasons why so many parents send their children to study abroad nowadays. There they can get a high-quality education without feeling societal pressure."
The country's top three universities are grouped under an acronym 'SKY', where Seoul National University stands for 'S', Korea University for 'K', and Yonsei University for 'Y'. Koreans believe that only graduates of one of these universities will have a successful career.
Where does this attention to education come from?
"For a long time, we had been a Japanese colony. South Korea won independence with the end of the Second World War. Still, it took us many years to grow from one of the poorest states in the region to one of the most developed countries. We had no oil, no gas, or any strategic raw materials. If we wanted to survive, we needed to advance our economy. State leaders, therefore, revealed that the only option was to train highly-skilled specialists," explains Donghee.
The Mining University's student got interested in the history of Russia yet when studying at school. However, his first visit to the country took place only two years following his graduation.
As Donghee recalls, "My initial desire was to travel. I arrived in Moscow first, just as an ordinary tourist, and then went to St. Petersburg. But here I came to realise I would rather stay for much longer and start learning Russian. I shared these thoughts with my parents, and their advice was as follows: if you want to study in Russia, the Mining University shall be the best choice. Since my father runs a subsidiary of Shell in Busan, he knows pretty well that the university is outstanding. Its graduates are also offered decent jobs upon return home."
After the trip, Donghee came to the conclusion that building a successful career in South Korea did not necessarily require studying at a local university. As a nice bonus, studying abroad can be much cheaper as well. A study term at one of the engineering universities in ROK will cost, for instance, no less than 390 thousand rubles (about €5,000). In contrast, in Russia, it will be three times cheaper on average.
"Regardless of whether a university is a public or private one, students have to pay. Only five per cent of the most gifted and talented students are educated free of charge and granted scholarships," said the young man.
Donghee did not manage to receive a quota for tuition-free education and had to pay for his studies both when earning his Bachelor's and Master's degrees. Yet six years later, he won a competition organised by Rossotrudnichestvo and pursued free PhD studies.
As the South Korean student admits, the first years were the hardest. Social relations are heavily regulated in his home country, and criticism coming from executives is something to obeyed without doubting it. It should come as no surprise then that he was shocked to see Russian students engaged in loud discussions with teachers or even arguing with them.
"Soon, I noticed another difference between Korean and Russian educational systems. In Russia, parents do not overburden their children with numerous lessons where tutors literally push knowledge into their heads. In Korea, that is just how it is! 95% of school students get tired of learning long before they graduate. As a result, they lose any interest in science. All they do is memorise the material, but they never ask the teacher even if unable to understand something. I have personally seen Koreans participating in lectures and conferences. They can perform and make wonderful presentations or demonstrate knowledge of modern software, yet they act like robots. There is no creativity in them, no deep understanding of the problem," sums up the student.
When answering about his future prospects, Donghee Lee notes he has been already offered a job twice. One of the potential employers was a Korean-Russian Innovation Centre, which was opened up in Incheon by the Korea Institute of Industrial Technology. The Centre's executives were highly willing to have the PhD student in their team. As the student himself says, it was a job all young researchers in South Korea would be interested in. Another firm by which he was contacted was the Hyundai Research Centre, whose head in Russia personally invited Donghee to join the company. Nonetheless, the student had to turn down both offers since he had placed a higher priority to the defence of PhD thesis and earning an academic degree.
"If I manage to do that, I would like to stay here, at the Mining University, become a professor, teach students, and conduct research at the Department of Gas Transportation & Storage. I am particularly interested in LNG because I believe it to be one of the most promising industries in the global commodity markets. Thus, scientific work is what I would want to do the most. If I still do not find a way to stay at the university after completing PhD studies, this will not be the end anyway. I guess I will apply for a job in one of the Korean research centres," shares his plans Donghee.
By the way, Korean research institutes have already shown interest in competencies of the young specialist. As such, the Korean Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources invited him last year as an expert to hold lectures on specifics of oil production in Russia. But even with that said, the mere thought of coming back home makes Donghee sad.
"Career has become a religion in South Korea. People miss the times when there was more humanity, warm-heartedness, real emotions. I think it is something that can still be found in Russia," said the South Korean student.