“If you don’t have the ability then blame your parents,” wrote Jung Yoo-ra on social media in 2014, after being accepted into a prestigious university. Her mother, it turns out, had gone to great lengths to secure a spot for her, inducing Ehwa Women’s University to alter its admissions policy in a manner tailor-made for Ms Jung. Last month a court ruled that the nine people involved in this subterfuge had fundamentally shaken the “values of fairness that prop up our society”. Above all, the “feelings of emptiness and betrayal they caused in hardworking students” could not be excused.
University was once seen as a source of social mobility in South Korea. But so important is the right degree to a student’s prospects in life that rich families began spending heavily on coaching to improve their children’s chances, leaving poorer families behind. By 2007 over three-quarters of students were receiving some form of private tuition, spawning a maxim about the three necessities to win a place at a good university: “father’s wealth, mother’s information, child’s stamina”. A report by the ministry of education found that in 2016 households with monthly incomes of 7m won ($6230) or more were spending 443,000 won a month on private education, nine times as much as families bringing in 1m won or less.
Many South Koreans believe that the rich and influential do not just spend more on education, they also manipulate the system, as Ms Jung’s mother, a close friend of the previous president, did so spectacularly. According to the Pew Research Centre, a think-tank, only a fifth of those aged 18-33 believe working hard brings success. An ever-growing dictionary of slang attests to the perception: people speak of using “back” (backing, or connections) to get jobs; when Ms Jung refused to return to South Korea to face charges related to her university admission, the local press dubbed it a “gold-spoon escape”. And 34% of young people say they feel “isolation due to academic cliques” at work.
The unfairness is all the more galling because of the fierce competition for jobs. This year there were 36 applicants for every job, up from 32 two years ago. Youth unemployment reached a record 12% earlier this year.
Frustrated young people are starting to speak out. The activists of a group called Hidden Bag run a small yearly campaign to “reject university entrance”, trying to persuade people to eschew the whole process. At a recent film festival in Seoul, Hidden Bag provided “healing kits” for young people wishing to challenge “never-ending competition” and “education-based limits”. Colorful sweets, packaged to look like medicine, were handed out to students to encourage them to take a stand. Some were labeled “courage”, others “strength”. By spurning the rat race, they hope to raise “fundamental questions” about prevailing values. Fewer than 70% of school leavers went on to university last year, the lowest level in almost 20 years.
Moon Jae-in, the president since May, has pledged that under his administration “the thickness of a parent’s purse” will not determine their children’s prospects. This week an MP from his party introduced legislation to extend the “blind hiring” process used in the civil service, whereby applicants are judged only on standardized exams, not on their academic record, to state-owned firms as well. The bill’s author is also proposing an amendment in response to one of the other oddities of Ms Jung’s admission: she scored badly in her written exam, but was given full marks for the interview. The amendment would require all university interviews to be recorded or minuted for transparency. Blame Ms Jung’s parents.