South Korea’s Ministry of Education changes college funding criteria to curb the ‘invasion of liberal arts’

The ministry of Culture of South Korea released new criteria to grant funds to high education facilities as an attempt to curb the “invasion of liberal arts”. The high school exam acting as the entry test in top universities favors science students.

University of Seoul, South Korea
Classroom of the University of Seoul, South Korea | © Changbok Ko

The ministry of Education of South Korea released a plan including new criteria to grant funds for college education facilities. They are perceived as a way to try curbing the distortion in college admissions favoring high-school science students over liberal arts students.

In its 2023 Plan for Supporting Universities Contributing to Higher Education, released on February 17, the ministry of Education lays out the criteria to distribute the annual funds allocated to higher-education facilities in the country. A total of 57.5 billion won (44 million dollars) will be shared between the 91 selected universities that meet the government’s requirement for getting the funds.

But the government has decided this year to change the evaluation index deciding on the amount of the funds. And there is much at stake as funding that can go from 250 to 750 million won (190,000 to 580,000 dollars) will be cut by 20 percent for the underperforming universities and reallocated to the ones with the highest evaluation scores.

The ministry justifies the decision as a way to “strengthen the connection between college admissions and high school curricula, and to increase fairness and accountability in screening operation.”

Recent changes in South Korea’s high-school academics actually led to unbalanced and obscure admission results to colleges, and growing frustration among students, parents and even higher-education facility management.

In South Korea, liberal arts and science studies are two different academic paths in high school. At the end of high school, students take the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), or Suneung. The results are crucial as they account for graduating high school and for getting into the highest-ranking universities since they use it a lot as an entry exam.

Held every year in November, the country almost entirely revolves around the test that one day.

The CSAT includes six main study areas which often change with mandatory and elective subjects: Language Arts (reading, literature, writing), Mathematics, English, Korean History, Foreign Language, and Inquiry, the latter assessing students’ problem-solving skills in the fields of social studies, science, or vocational education.

But a reform of the CSAT in 2015 removed the distinction between majors so that science and liberal arts students are all allowed to pick elective subjects to another major. The objective of the reform was to boost “creative and convergent talents” and not limit students to a siloed academic path.

Students are now allowed to apply to liberal arts departments of a university while having studied science in high school and vice versa.

But the results of the new “integrated CSAT” introduced in the last two tests have shown science high-school students are now favored by the test over liberal arts students.

As a consequence, a large number of science students applied and were accepted to enroll in the humanities and social science departments of top universities while their scores would have given them upper-middle-ranked universities if they wanted to enroll in natural science departments.

In South Korea, this controversy is referred to as the “invasion of liberal arts,” (문과 침공) by science students as they can get to the most prestigious universities more easily that way.

As such, many liberal arts students don’t get to go to the universities they wished for. Some enroll in a university but don’t attend classes and prepare to retake the CSAT the next year, others choose science tests in the CSAT hoping to get better grades than their fellow students.

This situation that was witnessed over the last two years has grown the frustration among students, parents but also higher-education facility management. Drop out rate of science students enrolling into liberal arts departments of high-ranking universities are higher and block opportunities for other students, resulting in a loss of tuition for education facilities.

Last week, Lee Ju-ho, the deputy prime minister for Social Affairs and minister of Education, held a meeting with the admissions deans of 12 universities in Seoul in order to discuss the exam-entry issue.

In the university evaluation process that decides on the distribution of state funds implemented since 2014, 10 points, on a range of 100 points, are now assigned if the university’s selection criteria follow that high-school curriculum as reformed in 2015. It also requires that more students are selected following the CSAT results.

In fact, Korean universities removed mandatory subjects to take in the CSAT like literature when applying to the humanities and social sciences departments. But on the other hand, they kept some subjects mandatory such as calculus or geometry when students applied for natural sciences and medicine departments. Cross-application is mostly possible only one way, which favors science major high-school students.

Sogang University and Sungkyunkwan University two of the top higher-education facilities in South Korea said they would remove mandatory test fields in all departments. With a fragile financial situation for many Korean universities, mandatory topics may soon disappear.

But critics argue it is not going to solve a biased calculation system of the CSAT, which is also considered obscure and complicated to understand.

The CSAT score also depends on how the other students performed. And grade differences in sciences are greater than in humanities, deepening the advantage of scientific topics. Moreover, answering all questions correctly in calculus or geometry has provided higher scores than in probability and statistics which are all three elective subjects in mathematics. And liberal arts students prefer choosing probability and statistics over calculus or geometry.

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