Yerim Kim, a high school sophomore in Seoul, is anxious.
Just one year away from taking the most important exam of her life, the 17-year-old’s battle plan has been thrown into uncertainty, ironically, by a government measure intended to alleviate students’ stress and relieve parents’ spending on education.
Last week, the South Korean government announced the removal of “killer questions”—questions not covered in the classroom—from the Suneung, a notoriously grueling college entrance test also known as the Korean SAT.
“I feel worried [about] its potential consequences on my future,” Kim tells TIME. “The Korean SAT is based on relative evaluation, and dumbing down the questions will definitely result in an unwelcome outcome, especially for high-achieving students.”
The move is the latest step taken in a decades-long initiative to crack down on the country’s booming private education industry. Despite a decline in the student population last year, national spending on private education soared to a record 26 trillion won ($20 billion) in South Korea, the most expensive country in the world to raise a child. Uncoincidentally, South Korea also has the world’s lowest birth rate, which has sparked grave concerns for its economy.
As a demographic crisis looms, authorities are taking aim at the country’s hagwons, or “cram schools”—for-profit tutoring institutions attended by some 80% of Korean students. There are more than 24,000 hagwons located just in Seoul—triple the number of convenience stores in the city.
But decades of reforms have only exacerbated the systemic reliance on hagwons, and experts and students tell TIME that the recent measures similarly fail to tackle the root of Korea’s education problems, which are fueled by a wider culture of competition stemming in large part from the country’s imbalanced labor market.
“It’s difficult to prepare for school exams on your own when hagwons provide abundant study material that you would otherwise be unable to obtain,” says Kim, who attends one herself. “The fact that everyone else is attending hagwons makes me feel like I’m missing out on something if I don’t.”
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