Lukewarm reaction to university admissions exam changes

The government of South Korea this week unveiled its highly anticipated plan for reform of the standardised university entrance exam, also known as the College Scholastic Ability Test (Suneung), after postponing the release date three times.

The aim of the proposals is to make the intensely competitive exam and university admissions system fairer and alleviate some of the economic burden for parents resorting to cram schools. It hopes to eliminate the ‘arms race’ of additional courses as students try to secure an edge over their peers.

However, while teachers’ associations are concerned the influence of the competitive exam on school education and university admissions will continue, some top universities say it will not have a significant impact on their admissions.

According to the proposal made public by the education ministry on 10 October, optional subjects in the national exam for Korean, mathematics and subjects such as social studies and sciences will be removed, ensuring all candidates take the same exam. The changes are slated for 2028 as the government needs to provide substantial advance notice to schools to bring in curricular changes.

From the 2025 academic year, when the new exam cohort of students enters high school, the grading system for internal school assessments which can also count towards admissions, will change from the current 9 grade system to a 5-tier relative grading system, which is intended to ease competition.

However, the much-debated essay and descriptive questions, originally floated as a way to reduce unnecessary competition and foster students’ holistic thinking abilities, have been excluded in this proposal.

Admissions ratio retained

Despite the proposed changes, the proportion of students accepted by universities after the results of the exam are announced – known as the ‘regular admissions ratio’ – is being maintained at 40%.

This is despite the fact that since entering office in a year ago Education Minister Lee Ju-ho had expressed regret on maintaining the ‘40% regular admissions’, and amid widespread anticipation that the regular admissions percentage would decrease in this proposal.

The deterioration of public education and the growth of private tutoring, coupled with criticisms that the system stifles 21st-century holistic thinking, had led to the national exam’s importance being reduced to 30% of admission in 2018.

However, due to fairness controversies under the previous administration of president Moon Jae-in, national exam-based admissions were increased to 40% of admissions in 2019. At that time, the exam-based admissions policy was also criticised for not being aligned with other government policies such as admissions based on more comprehensive student records.

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