With the problem of the COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) letting down students’ hopes for an exciting school life, many schools around South Korea are looking into implementing the fall semester system in their schools. This article looks at what the fall semester system issue is, and how the COVID-19 situation can act as a crucial time in reforming Korean education.
To begin with, what is this fall semester system? Often called the autumn semester system, it is a system employed in most countries in Europe and the USA. According to this system, schools start in late August or September, and continue their academic years until August of the next year.
The only countries in the OECD that haven’t adopted this system are South Korea, Japan and Australia. Among these countries, South Korea has made March the start of the school year and kept this system for 57 years. Throughout its history, which was heavily influenced by Japan and the US, Korea has attempted to adopt the Japanese school system (the spring semester system starting in April) and the American school system (the fall semester system). However, this led to various problems, such as a mismatch of the dates for graduation ceremonies and admission tests with the change of year. Consequently, the South Korean government agreed to set March as the start of the school year in 1961 and has kept its tradition since.
The fall semester system has risen to the spotlight numerous times in Korea. In 1997 and 2006, many education experts argued for its implementation for reasons including the facilitation of international exchange, such as internships abroad programs and student exchanges. Also, they emphasized that longer summer vacations would allow more time for students to have various academic experiences during the summer, like outdoor field trips. However, the government has continually rejected such proposals due to the enormous social costs that would accompany changing major dates, such as changes to the Korean SAT and Korean companies’ recruitment schedule. They were also concerned that this would incur chaos surrounding the potential changes in the grading system.
The implementation of the fall semester system has again become an issue due to the current COVID crisis. Despite the implementation of online substitutes to carry on with scheduled courses, many schools are seeing setbacks in their academic plans, including admission and exam dates. Not only schools but students are also having trouble adjusting to this newly implemented online system, due to problems with attendance, technical difficulties, and a drop in class quality. Despite such inconveniences caused, the Ministry of Education has not considered shifting the semester system to later in the fall. Because they estimate that the social costs entailed with the shift would be around 10 trillion won, the Ministry has argued that Korea should not hasten its decision.
This official statement by the Ministry of Education has left Korean schools with no choice but to maintain their current systems, despite the troubles they face. Yonsei University is one of them. Although Underwood International College (UIC) is an international college, the decision for this change is heavily influenced by the Ministry. Yonsei University has still made swift decisions to reduce any disadvantages that its students might face. Through continuous communication with the student council, the school has added changes to their policy in consideration of individual circumstances of the students. It has introduced more flexible measures for students wishing to take a leave of absence and has provided additional dates to change classes. Furthermore, Mate, the student council of Yonsei, has been trying to address the students’ call for tuition fee refunds, as well as their dissatisfaction with online classes, such as the overload of assignments to check attendance or the difficulties of holding practicum classes.
This is not all. Professor Chulyoung Kim, the Associate Dean of Planning for UIC and the Director of the Underwood Division, says that although COVID-19 is posing hardships for professors and students alike, UIC is doing its best to provide high quality education and services for students. Professors are often awake until midnight to provide the best classes and administrators are making frequent visits to the Severance hospital to keep track of their faculty and students’ check-up results for any infections. In terms of academics, the Writing center and Math center have been running remotely, and academic advising has continued online.
It is no doubt that these are the best solutions that can be offered by Yonsei University to alleviate the problems of this spring semester. Students should acknowledge and appreciate these efforts made for them by the university, since not all problems can be solved and not all resources can be substituted online. In the meantime, the COVID-19 crisis offers Korea a chance to look back at its current education system. Although the Ministry of Education has turned down the prospects of introducing a fall semester system, now is the time to think about shifting from an age-old system to one that is more internationally coherent.