Steeped in the traditional educational approach predicated on religious teachings from Buddhism and Confucianism, education in Korea reflected those cultural values that embraced deep respect for elders and older family members. This mentor approach to learning did not allow for scientific reasoning that began to sweep through Europe and the West in the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed, Koreans did not accept the Western ideas and teaching which became prevalent in the latter 19th century.
Korea also suffered from continual invasion throughout its history, and by the beginning of the 20th century the invaders were the Japanese. Until the Japanese surrender in 1945, Korea followed a two-tiered educational system, one for Japanese and one for Koreans, which depended heavily on Japanese teachers or those Koreans educated in Japan. The sudden departure of the Japanese left a significant void in terms of trained, educated, and skilled Koreans. The few remaining teachers followed Japanese educational practices that stressed memorization and testing rather than problem solving. The situation was exacerbated by the devastating nature of the Korean Conflict of 1950 - 53 that essentially forced the Koreans to totally rebuild the educational infrastructure.
By the middle 1950s this effort began in earnest, with U.S. support, and, not surprisingly, the Korean educational system came to mirror the American model. The 50 years since have seen a miracle of modern resurgence from an agrarian society to a heavily industrialized and technologically adept country where illiteracy is virtually non-existent.
The academic year in Korea runs March to February.
Primary and Secondary Education
Korean education is compulsory up to age 15. Six years of primary (Grades 1-6) are followed by three years of middle school/junior high school (Grades 7-9) which, in turn, lead to high school entrance.
High school is three years in duration and consists of academic (general) high schools or vocational/technical high schools. Completion of the high school curriculum results in a high school certificate of the appropriate type: Immungye Kodung Hakkyo (Academic), Silop Kodung Hakkyo (Vocational), or Kanho Kodung Kisul Hakkyo (Nursing Higher Technical School). Korean is the medium of instruction though English is a compulsory subject at the secondary level.
First Cycle, Academic
The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology maintains overall quality control of post-secondary institutions in Korea, whether public or private.
Entry into university requires an exam, the Scholastic Achievement Examination for College Entrance (SAECE), as well as a review of high school grades. Bachelor's degree programs are based on a credit system with 140 units the minimum for most degrees and last four years. Medicine and Dentistry last six years.
First Cycle, Vocational/Technical
Junior colleges also exist offering a variety of programs that are two years in length, though one may also obtain a 3-year nursing diploma. In fisheries and marine colleges, an additional semester beyond the 2-year diploma results in a certificate of practice in this professional area. The Korea Correspondence University, an independent institution that originated as a junior college in 1972, offers a 5-year bachelors' degree and is under the authority of the Ministry of Education.
Second and Third Cycles
Graduate programs lead to the award of master's and doctoral degrees very much along the model found in the United States. Master's degrees are 24 units, generally taken over two years (12 is the maximum allowable per year), as well as a thesis. The PhD consists of another 36 units (60 total graduate units) taken over three years. Additionally, doctoral candidates are required to demonstrate fluency in two foreign languages, pass an oral exam and submit a dissertation. Universities operate on a semester calendar.