PERHAPS IT is time for our society to consider more seriously the true meaning behind the term ‘noblesse oblige’. Privilege entails responsibility, and the affluent too are responsible for doing what is beneficial for the whole of society. Contrary to what the ideals of capitalism may suggest—that we are entitled to what we can afford—education is one of those things that ought not to be bought and sold freely. At the least, it should not be thought of in that way. It seems that more and more parents, however, as they strive to provide their children with the best education possible—and that often equates to education provided at international schools—would increasingly do so even if it means bending the rules.
Buying one’s way to the top
The undeniable fact is that it is every parent’s wish to provide only the best for their children. Education is no exception, and neither are Korean parents. Whether it is because parents are unsatisfied with the quality of the education in local Korean schools or because they feel that international education is superior, there is an increased demand for international education, where students are exposed to a curriculum that emphasizes skills necessary to interact in an increasingly globalizing world.
But gaining admission into an international school is not so simple. Most international schools in Korea have admissions regulations, as per Korean law, which require students to hold a foreign passport in order to be considered for admission. If a possessor of Korean citizenship, the student must have had at least three years of schooling outside Korea. According to the Encyclopedia of Korean Culture published by the Academy of Korean Affairs, Korean law in 2009 set a quota of between 30% to 50% for Korean nationals that can be admitted into international schools. Thus these qualifications for eligibility, by default, deter admission for students who do not have a foreign passport or have not had schooling experience outside of Korea.
Since the latter is harder to obtain than the former, many parents have recently resorted to acquiring passports for their children (often achieved through illegal means) from countries like Nicaragua, Guatemala, or small countries in South America or Africa where it is easier to buy a passport compared to the U.S. “JoongAng Daily” reported that parents who have been prosecuted paid between \40 million and \150 million in the last three years to pay off brokers for getting their children foreign passports.
Kim Ji-hye (Soph., Dept. of Global Service & Entrepreneurship, Sookmyung Women’s Univ.), who attended Korea International School, says that many of her classmates had gained eligibility for admission through this very process. “There were many students who had passports or dual citizenship rights in smaller countries. Although nobody spoke out loud, everybody knew that often times it means that it had to be done illegally,” she says.
Why the demand for foreign education?
This social phenomenon begs the question, what is the reason behind Koreans’ almost fanatical determination to send their children to foreign schools? And why is it worth violating the law? Lee Jun-ho (Soph., Dept. of International Sports and Leisure, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies), who has had both local and foreign schooling experience, says that attending an international school in Korea means that the family does not have to sacrifice either being able to live together or receiving an international education. “By sending their kids to international schools in Korea, the whole family can live together and yet still have access to an international education,” says Lee.
Another reason parents avoid sending their children to local schools is their lack of faith in the Korean education system, which gives rise to their perception that they can easily pay their way out of the stress that local schooling will bestow. “International education seems to place a higher emphasis on activities and interaction,” says Lee. “But in Korean schools, students face a lot of pressure of having to score well on exams. Education in Korea seems to revolve around learning the textbook inside out. Memorization. Foreign schools require that students ask questions, discuss, and nurture curiosity. It is a different type of learning.”
An anonymous parent whose children attend an international school says that the other reason parents may be willing to break laws in order to send their children to international schools lies in the fact that they want to maintain their social status. “Parents want their children to graduate from prestigious international schools because it is much easier to go to a university abroad from an international school than it is from a Korean school. And this ultimately gives their children a better chance of having a successful career,” she says. “Even if it means using their financial power to cheat the system, in their eyes it is worth it because they view international education as a stepping stone to future affluence. Sending their children abroad is hard, and local education is not good enough. So they choose to forge their way into international schools. It reflects a subtle but dark sort of greed.”
Is this morally acceptable?
Joseph Hwang (Prof., UIC, Philosophy) says that both at the moral level and individual level, this kind of conduct is wrong. He says that it is morally wrong when people actually use their financial resources to manipulate the system because the parents are using deception as a tool and because it corrodes the integrity of the system itself. “It reflects the idea that the end justifies the means,” says Hwang.
Christian Blood (Prof., UIC, Comparative Literature) says that this fosters an attitude towards education that is potentially dangerous. “I think that Korea needs to rethink parts of this,” he says. “You cannot buy everything. What is mind-blowing is not the fact that parents are willing to spend lots of money to get their children into school, but rather the laws they are willing to break. I think this is the wrong way to spend resources.”
On top of that, Kim feels that students who have obtained admission through unjust means are depriving those who cannot go through local education of admission opportunities. “The kids that are supposed to attend these international schools are kids of diplomats,” says Kim. “Often they have spent a lot of time abroad and it is difficult for them to adjust to Korean-style education because of culture differences and language barriers. And the spots for admissions are being taken away from these kids by those whose parents have acquired foreign passports for them.”
Kim also objects to the connotation that is projected on education through this issue. “This social issue suggests that all it takes is money. And it seems as if those who are unable to afford international education have no choice but to be left behind with what they can get. It also implies that foreign education is superior in quality than education offered in local Korean schools. There is such high demand for international education and culture, and this continuously pushes people away from believing that one can get a quality education in local Korean schools.”
Such an attitude often leads to the commoditization of education; something that Hwang says ought not to happen because the true purpose of education will inevitably be undermined. “Education is largely supposed to be based on meritocracy, based on people who work the hardest, based on people who are most eligible in terms of academic achievement,” he says. “A system where you can get students in if you have the financial resources, instead of the smartest or most qualified students the most affluent students get in is not ideal. Education becomes a sort of investment where you are expecting a financial return. Education becomes something that teaches you practical skills in getting a job,” says Hwang.
One of many dangers, should this trend continue, according to Blood, is that it gives rise to an intense competitiveness regarding education. “It becomes a kind of arms race,” says Blood. “If everyone’s doing it, it suggests that you need to, too.” Hwang’s views dovetail with Blood’s. He says that people will increasingly harbor “a kind of almost fetishistic desire to elevate an elite standing to the point where it kind of becomes perverse,” he says. “It leads to this sort of deceptive action such as falsifying documents.”
“The point is that there is something problematic if someone recognizes that there is a way to get around the system and tries to exploit it for his or her own selfish purposes,” says Hwang. “It shows that economic affluence comes with a great amount of power.”
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An episode of the American TV show “Law & Order” features a wealthy man who steals someone’s kidney for his daughter using his financial resources. The man is found guilty but says “you would do it for your kid, and it was only a kidney.” The prosecutor in turn replies, “yes, but I know you would have still done it if your daughter needed a heart.”
“And this, though extreme,” says Blood, “is what comes to mind when considering what lengths Korean parents are willing to go to in order to educate their children. So the question is: where does it stop?” Whether the motive to bestow an international education to their children stems from love, pride or greed, the fact is that many parents are increasingly going the extra mile to bestow it, regardless of what it takes.
What we, as citizens, must do in response is collectively render social change that will actively address the situation; local education needs reform, and prevention mechanisms need to be erected. But most importantly, attitudes will have to be changed. Everyone is entitled to the best they can afford—insofar that it is afforded fair and square.