A study of power and class struggles in south korean education policy

Kim, Min Ji {Evelyn} (2019). 'A Study of Power and Class Struggles in South Korean Education Policy' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


Since the end of the Second World War, the notion of ‘development’ continues to be preoccupied with neoliberal understanding that equates economic growth with development. However, a narrow focus on growth often comes at the expense of disregarding essential elements for human well-being and social equity. Through my master’s thesis, I proposed an analytical framework for evaluating the gap between economic and human development that has arisen in South Korea since the mid-20th century as a result of a wide range of institutional changes. Examination of such changes and institutional performances in education and healthcare sectors revealed that the aforementioned gap can be reduced by strengthening democratic institutions and state accountability, as well as by building an inclusive civil society.

However, the ways in which past government administrations have changed their stances on educational ideals/policies provide a mixed picture. Rapid growth especially since the mid-20th century led to prioritisation of human capital development and to the adoption of neoliberal, market-oriented principles in education policies. The Korean administrations back then, however, ignored that ‘competition’ as a market-oriented principle cannot be easily applied to education, and such ignorance eventually led to the devastation of public education which hardly reflects human diversity. Although Korean students have widely been praised as top performers in science, reading and mathematics, continuously scoring above the OECD average, one should also note that high performance does not necessarily translate into ‘happiness’ or ‘self-determination’. More than 40% of students in Korea reported that they are not satisfied with their life and are stressed out by intense competition and pressure to achieve the highest grades.

There has been relatively small but important steps in South Korean academia that problematise the government’s prioritisation of ‘assessment-based competency’ and its ignorance of the ‘capability-based’ approach. This project aims to examine changing governance of education in South Korea – especially on the ways in which changing policies affect capability-building of students with different socioeconomic backgrounds. Then I would like to open up a discussion of whether the ‘list-making’ of capabilities is needed in enhancing happiness and agency freedom of students.

With a strong belief that education is itself a form of politics, my second goal is to examine the ways in which multiple layers of social transformation and conflict, such as (1) class struggle, (2) industrialisation, and (3) modernisation respectively influenced or changed how individuals perceive ‘education’ since the mid-20th century — either as a means of social mobility or for promoting and enhancing self-determination. It is my goal to find out whether these layers continue to matter ‘now’.

The nature of this work involves a primarily qualitative research methodology. This project employs a multimethod approach: firstly, document analysis of Korean education provides the means to track changes and compare the policies of states from 1945 onwards in relation to their emphasis, prioritised values, public responses and social atmosphere. This research retrieves data from official government websites such as the Ministry of Education, and the PISA website as well as critically review the existing literature to investigate education policies and the performances of Korean students and schools in respective education regimes. I will also conduct interviews with state-level education policymakers, public school teachers and students to offer a balanced perspective that integrates both top-down and bottom-up arguments on current education policies (e.g. Innovative School); performing a semi-structured interview is particularly vital in understanding what interviewees respectively consider as ‘key capabilities’ that can be attained through education. By bridging between education policy and the capability approach, it is certain that this project can open up a new discussion on the future direction of education policy.

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