Whether you’re a domestic or foreign resident of Korea, chances are the word “hagwon (학원/學院)” carries with it some emotionally laden connotations. According to the “Laws Regarding the Institution and Management of Hagwon and Extracurricular Education in the Republic of Korea (대한민국 학원의 설립·운영 및 과외교습에 관한 법률),” a hagwon is any private organization offering courses that run on a schedule longer than thirty days . Sounds innocuous, right? Perhaps its common English moniker “cram school,” then, might be a better indication of the terrors that lie curled up and waiting in the deep recesses of the concept.
Hagwons offer a wide range of courses for both children and adults, though nearly half of them reportedly constitute prep classes for the fearsome national school entrance exams . At a hagwon one might study ahead in standard public education subjects like math, science, history, or literature; get an edge or just enrich one’s intellectual life with subjects like foreign languages, Chinese characters (한자/漢字/hanja), studio art, and both Korean and foreign musical instruments; or even learn practical skills like dance, martial arts, investing, cooking, Microsoft office, computer operating systems, driving, and more. This variety of classes may seem staggering, but it is hardly surprising given that there exist an estimated 70,000 hagwons in the country today .
Many hagwon courses are structured around one or more standardized tests, lending the classes both an urgency and legitimacy sometimes not found in such extracurricular pursuits. Perhaps because of the high value placed on test scores as a component of one’s specifications or “스팩 (spec),” studying for a test appears to be considered by many young Korean adults as a valid lifestyle alternative to enrolling in graduate school or getting a job, at least temporarily. Indeed, in the last two years I have witnessed at least five Korean friends, sick of the thankless overwork and complicated social dramas of Korean workaday life, all but retire themselves from society save for attendance at one or two hagwon courses under the perfectly legitimate guise of “preparing for a test” (one of them ultimately fled to Europe once even the social cachet of this front had been expended after the proverbial test had been taken).
The modern prevalance of private academies has not been a constant staple across even twentieth-century South Korean history. Private academies have been around since at least the late 1800s, but commercialized education has, since then, not been without some social and governmental backlash. In the nineteen-eighties, for example, President Chun Doo Hwan (전두환/全斗煥) made efforts to outlaw private extracurricular academics entirely, a policy that held into the nineties . But even after the subsequent comeback of hagwons, making headlines into the twenty-first century Lee Myung-bak (이명박/李明博) administration were lobbying attempts to level the playing field by introducing policies curbing the academic market’s rapidly bifurcating price brackets, marked by a polarization that 76% of survey respondents called “too extreme” . And even well into the 2010’s the (admittedly unpopular) Park Geun-hye (박근혜/朴槿惠) administration enforced private education policies like strict evening curfews that, to hagwons and their proponents, too closely resemble the wholesale crackdowns of the eighties .
But maybe the government should not worry so much about the hagwon-induced effect of economic inequality on student advancement—after all, even in the absence of hagwon wealthy families would still presumably hire the services of elite tutors—but, rather, the economic inequality created by the commodification of a good as vital as education. Hagwon instructor Kim Kihoon, for example, who has been teaching for more than twenty years, apparently brings in an annual income of more than $4 million, mostly through online sales of curricular materials . While Mr. Kim is obviously a highly visible exception to the less-than-stellar hourly wages earned by most Korean and foreign hagwon instructors, his existence does raise the question of how much private individuals or firms should be able to profit from providing a service traditionally considered to be within the purview of calculated governmental wisdom rather than market-based competition.
The pragmatic answer to this question might hinge on whether competition for profit leads to higher-quality instruction than that which might be offered at schools established through more traditional community-based means. Judging from student reports of hagwon instructors being more engaged, more interesting, and all-around more admirable than public school teachers (not surprising given that 10% of these instructors are reportedly fired any given year) , the system seems to work, at least for those willing and able to sift out the top-quality schools—and then pay for them. Bringing us back to the original concern that hagwons contribute to the pernicious translation of economic inequality to inequality of social opportunity.
Native South Koreans aren’t the only ones to have raised concerns about the hagwon system, which has also, to some degree, received a bad reputation among foreign teachers for its poorly regulated employment conditions. One quick look at Dave’s ESL cafe  is enough to suggest that at least some private academies can and do short-change their teachers by controlling—and altering without notice—their housing and roommate conditions, firing them early just to avoid bonus payments, working them overtime without extra pay (anecdotally, this practice seems neither limited to hagwons nor foreign employees), withholding their passports for “safekeeping,” and generally treating them like second-class citizens. I’m sure that at least some of our readers can pipe in with some juicy stories.
But, dear readers, what do you think? Should education be a public good provided solely by tax-funded government institutions or private semi-charitable non-profit bodies, as in research universities? Or should for-profit companies be able to compete within the same market–as long as they are restrained by a certain degree of regulation? And, if so, what sort of regulation? Is the Korean system living up to this ideal? We’re interested in your thoughts.
This article was originally written for The Silk Road Project, now I Dig Culture, an international media channel that explores human cultural diversity and exchange.