Choosing between morals and duty
Autumn has arrived, and with it came school, woollen sweaters, and colder weather amongst other seasonal enjoyments. It is a time for harvest, for Thanksgiving and, in many parts of the world, for family bonding. However, for approximately half a million people in a certain country, autumn is a season that they have come to dread as it is the harbinger of a nightmare that becomes a reality every November: the College Scholastic Ability Test.
The CSAT, referred to as “suneung”, is a standardized test taken in November of one’s senior year of high school in South Korea. Although it is often compared to the SAT, the standardized exam administered by the United States, the two differ vastly in terms of content, preparation and weight in post-secondary admission processes. In other words, the CSAT is a beast of its own. Created by scholars under contracts of non-disclosure in a series of meetings in remote locations, the CSAT tests students’ knowledge of Korean, Mathematics, English, Social Studies, Science, an additional foreign language and a vocational subject – all in a ten hour sitting.
As one could imagine, the stress students are under is high. Unlike in North America, where post-secondary institutions have a holistic approach to admissions processes, universities in South Korea determine whether applicants merit acceptance based mainly, if not entirely, on their CSAT scores. Although some schools are upgrading their policies to be more liberal, the three that all students want to matriculate, dubbed as the SKY universities, have remained firm supporters of the standardized exam until recently, when a tragedy struck.
The world was in shock on the morning of April 16, 2014, when the MV Sewol carrying 476 passengers, 339 of which were students and teachers of Danwon High School, sank near the coast of Jindo Island, South Korea, leaving 172 survivors. The country was outraged by the government’s inefficiency in dealing with the crisis and failure to save the lives of students in their senior year of high school on what was supposed to be a de-stressing, pre-CSAT school vacation to Jeju Island. Unable to cope with the pressure and guilt, South Korea’s Prime Minister Chung Hong Won resigned and Danwon High School’s vice principal Kang Min Kyu committed suicide. Parents of Danwon students demanded retribution that could not be satisfied by a visit by Pope Francis, and so the Danwon Screening process was put into effect.
As mentioned above, academics play a major role in South Korea. In a country that believes that the post-secondary institution one attends will determine one’s future, September, the month of university applications, is a trying time for students and parents alike. The government, in hopes of placating parents of Danwon students, created what it thought would be a solution: the Danwon screening process. Euphemistically, it is known as the necessary aid and generosity Danwon students require in the university admissions process because of the trauma they have been through. In reality, it is an exorbitant advantage that students are receiving because the government sees no other alternative.
Traditionally, applicants to the nation’s most prestigious school, Seoul National University, face an acceptance rate of 0.5%, which is approximately 12 times lower than that of Harvard. Other universities such as Yonsei, Korea and Sungyunkan have significantly better odds with rates of nearly 25%, meaning that for every 4 applications are submitted, one is accepted. Danwon’s screening process gives a significant advantage that tilts the application to admission ratio in the students’ favour, exorbitantly so, to the point that nearly all of the Danwon students applying to Korea University, one of the Big Three institutions in Korea, are guaranteed matriculation while applicants from other schools face a 75% rejection rate.
This controversial screening has elicited outrage from parents of applicants of other schools and the students attending universities. Students of Seoul National University have expressed their discomfort, questioning the ethics behind the government’s attempts to make peace with the parents of Danwon High School. Is it an ethical choice to compensate students who survived the ferry incident by allowing them to attend prestigious universities? Is it right for the government to refuse a more qualified applicant to give his/her seat to a less qualified one? Does the government have the right to intervene to make decisions that will alter a student’s life irrevocably?