Page last updated at 15:40 GMT, Tuesday, 23 September 2008 16:40 UK

S Korea slams high tuition costs

Lee Myung-bak
President Lee wants Korea's education system to be reformed

President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea has called for measures to reduce the financial burden of private tuition.

Latest estimates suggest South Korean households spend an average of $600 (323) a month on private lessons.

Figures from 2006 show expenses with extra-curricular tuition approaching $30bn (16bn), nearly 4% of annual GDP.

South Korea has a fiercely competitive academic system. About half the money used for private tuition is spent on improving English language skills.

Although South Korea scores highly in most science-related subjects, its students tend to lack fluency in English.

The state-run education system, with its rigid emphasis on rote learning, has been blamed for failing to encourage creativity and proficiency in foreign languages.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that despite achieving high marks in English exams, some students remain unable to speak even an easy sentence.

The world's longest school hours

Cram schools, known as hagwon, are often the answer.

Children and teenagers attend them after normal school hours, studying hard well after nightfall.

They spend more time in school than their counterparts in any other developed country.

With broadband internet access in almost all households, South Korean students also purchase live interactive tuition packages.

These packages allow them to develop comprehension and conversation skills by talking to qualified native speakers overseas.

Private educational institutions are accused of excessively raising their fees, although their business is irrelevant to global oil prices
President Lee Myung-bak

Many also seek education abroad, with Koreans forming the largest foreign student contingent in the United States.

But the large sums spent on tuition weigh heavily on the budget of Korean families, particularly at a time of declining economic growth.

The amount spent privately now exceeds the state's own education budget.

Shaking up the system

Conservative president Lee Myung-bak has blamed the inadequacies of the state-run system for South Korea's failure to achieve higher productivity and catch up with the world's richest nations.

In a radical move after he came to power earlier this year, his administration suggested teaching many subjects in English in state schools - including Korean history.

The idea proved too controversial to become official policy.

The lack of sufficiently qualified teachers would also have been a major obstacle.

But Mr Lee seems determined to shake up the system.

He told South Korea's Yonhap news agency that he wanted private schools' bills to shrink, and state schools to introduce rankings and competition among teachers.

He has also asked his government to look at ways to relieve the financial burden on families in the short term.

"New policy measures are now needed to immediately help ordinary households," he is quoted as saying.

"Private educational institutions are accused of excessively raising their fees, although their business is irrelevant to global oil prices."

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