Higher education is an inherently conservative industry – it’s extremely rare to come across something genuinely new and unique in the field. Which is precisely why Korea’s so interesting: it has a number of genuine system innovations, particularly in lifelong learning, from which a lot of countries could learn.
Koreans have what some commentators call “education fever”; as in many Confucian countries, the sacrifices families make to ensure their children get an education are almost incomprehensible to North Americans. But until the early 1980s, the opportunities to obtain higher education were quite limited. As the system began to expand, there was an enormous explosion of pent-up demand, and not just among the young: people in mid-career also wanted to get the education that was previously unavailable.
Institutions couldn’t cope with the demand, and even if they could, they were wedded to an elite cohort intake model, and the idea of working people coming in to study part-time sat uneasily with that. So the Korean government came up with two alternatives. One was to create a number of “self-study” degree programs; essentially allowing the individuals to get a degree from the ministry by simply writing a set of challenge exams. The other was to create a “Credit Bank” – essentially a degree-granting organization of last resort, which would allow individuals unable to attend regular university and college programs to obtain Bachelor or associate degrees by piecing together credits from multiple institutions, both physical and online (though, interestingly, the credit bank’s biggest current problem is policing online learning providers, the worry being that inadequate invigilation and the potential for fraud will eventually devalue the credit bank’s degrees if they keep accepting such credits).
I know, what a great idea, right? Such a neat solution to the problem of credit transfer. But though this system bears a lot of resemblance to the fantasies of DIY higher education fanatics in that it breaks the monopoly of traditional education providers, it’s not exactly a majority taste. Despite being able to provide degrees in a manner which is cheaper and/or more convenient than the alternatives, only about 6% of all degrees provided last year in Korea came through the credit bank and the self-study Bachelor’s.
The reason for that is pretty simple, and one that the Great Disruption types need to keep in mind: people prefer the prestige of a regular degree from a regular university. Just because someone invents something new and cool doesn’t mean people’s preferences are necessarily going to change, even if it means lower costs and/or more convenience. Korea just goes to show that in a battle between educational innovation and educational prestige, one should always bet on the latter.