Wrap-up #2

Globalization, Economic Capital and Higher Education in South Korea

For industrialized and industrializing nations, neoliberalism has been a powerful force, transcending borders as an ideology by defining and defending policy and shaping trade and markets around the world.  While the economic growth in a number of nations espousing economic liberalization has been staggering, so too has been the problematic bi-product of economic and consequently social inequality.  Neo-liberalism’s paradox is that the possibility if increasing economic growth and efficiency by way of increased output, open trade, and flexible employment also includes the potential for introducing level of inequality that did not previously exist. More so, these drastic changes in the levels of inequality have very real consequences for the members of society and are especially challenging for workers in the middle class, where in the past governments used to control unequal distribution of wealth with protectionist policies. The neo-liberalism paradox intensifies as it calls for a reduction in domestic protectionist policies and opening of markets to the global economy, which then hits the middle class the hardest by polarizing those with and without economic resources and thus intensifying the struggle to maintain class position.  This has led to massive mobilization of all available resources to obtain training and education associated with occupational stability, reward, and fulfillment. Education remained the single most important factor affecting social mobility in the 1990s. With the exception of the military, whose top echelons were educated at the Korea Military Academy, the postwar elites of South Korea shared one characteristic: they were graduates of the most prestigious universities. There was a well-defined hierarchy of such schools, starting with Seoul National University at the top and followed by Yonsei University and Korea University. Ehwa Woman’s University was the top institution for women.

In my research, I examined South Korea, a newly industrialized country, as a concrete example of increased inequality as a result of broad global change in economic structures. In particular, I would like to research and examine the specific example of educational inequality and how the strategies and resources employed by the middle class (including private tutoring and education abroad) to protect their class status and attempt social mobility by way of higher education have changed with the advent of globalization. In my research, focused on the question of why elite institution credentials are of particular importance in South Korea and if this idea is imbibed and executed by students who study at elite colleges, in my case Yonsei University.

Essentially, I studied the educational inequality and the strategies employed by the “new middle class” to protect their class status and social mobility options by way of elite higher education with the advent of globalization. For example, I asked questions like how does educational inequality play into social inequality? Does attending an elite school increase chances of social mobility? Do students believe this is true? An overarching question I researched was why South Korea is forcibly retaining the old model of education in which only graduates of the elite universities are candidates for success and social mobility, and consequently stunting their own growth in a growingly competitive world?

Evidence of Social Importance of Education at an Elite Institute

The goal of resource mobilization is obtaining the status gained with attending an elite academy, to occupy a stable job, preserve class position and/or provide opportunities for children to reproduce the current class standing if not allow for the potential of social mobility.  Parents are feeling this pressure and therefore investing heavily in the prospects of elite higher education to provide the opportunity of class security through the acquisition of the skills of the new global economy.

The social importance of education is one of the major continuities between traditional and contemporary Korea. People at the top require blue-ribbon educational backgrounds, not only because education gives them the cultural sophistication and technical expertise needed to manage large, complex organizations, but also because subordinates will not work diligently for an uneducated person–especially if subordinates are educated themselves. “Old school ties” are also increasingly necessary for advancement in a highly competitive society. At the bottom of the steep higher-education pyramid are low-prestige “diploma mills” whose graduates have little chance of breaking into elite circles. Yet graduation even from these institutions confers a sort of middle-class status.  

Despite impressive increases in university enrollments, the central importance of education credentials for social advancement has tended to widen the gap between the middle and lower classes. In the workplace, men and women with a middle-school or secondary-school education are often treated with open contempt by university graduate managers. The latter address them with rude or abrupt words whose impact is amplified by the status sensitive nature of the Korean language. The result has been bitter resentment and increasing labor militancy bordering on political opposition to the status quo.