Korea's thriving private education industry is criticized for undermining the public education system and perpetuating the gap between the haves and have-nots.
Efforts and calls to regulate the industry continue.
However, a global education business CEO says the private sector can be an agent of innovation for the public education system.
"There is a stigma in many parts of the world that for-profit education is bad, that education is a social contract that should be paid for by the state," Rise Global CEO Barry O'Callaghan told The Korea Times in an interview in Seoul last week.
"However, if that becomes the exclusive mandate of education systems, they tend to be slow to reform and innovating change."
O'Callaghan has been in the education business for the past 20 years. In 1999, he established Riverdeep, which provided math programs in middle schools, targeting underperforming students in U.S. public schools. The company later merged with two of the largest textbook businesses in the U.S., creating Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH).
In 2011, O'Callaghan left the company and established Rise China, an English-language-learning business. Its success led him to begin a similar business in Korea and other Asian countries, including Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, under the brand Rise Global. The CEO was in Seoul for parent seminars to promote Rise Korea before the new academic year.
O'Callaghan said Korea's mature, sophisticated market for English education made it a good test-bed for his business.
Yet at the same time, he acknowledged this was a problem.
"The biggest anomaly in Korea's education market is the disconnection between the public school system and private education," he said.
"It makes no sense to have a child in a hagwon studying a curriculum that is two to three grade levels beyond what they are doing during the day."
While the scale of Korea's private education is considered disproportionate, some countries have nothing other than a public school system.
The CEO said private education's role should be somewhere in between these two extremes.
Along the same lines, O'Callaghan said rather than brutally regulating the private sector, there should be collaboration to promote it with the public system.
"The two should create a natural synergy rather than undergo disconnection," he said.
Korean education system
O'Callaghan said Korean students excel academically and Korea is among the top countries sending students to Ivy League schools in the U.S., as well as attaining doctoral degrees.
"The Korean education system has produced a very well-educated academic community, but whether that translates into success in the corporate, professional world, it is debatable," he said.
"Korea's prowess is not seen in the number of executives at top multinationals or in terms of the number of Korean companies that have become global leaders."
The rigid public education system is often cited as a reason Korean students' strengths are mainly limited to academic achievement.
The entire 12-year school system is geared toward preparing for the College Scholastic Aptitude Test (CSAT).
"A one-day test being the way to benchmark 18-year-old students is not fit for purpose," O'Callaghan said.
He said modern teaching standards around social skills and emotional intelligence can support hard academic output.
"Social skills and EQ, as well as IQ, need to be developed, which go beyond university academic studies into the workplace, to compete on a global level," he said.
O'Callaghan said Rise Korea aims to turn abstract grammatical English into real-life applications.
"The best way is through projects and an immersive environment using interactive software built in English," he said.
Rise Korea hosts leadership training programs and debating competitions and plans to set up student-run radio stations _ an initiative at Rise China's centers.
What further distinguishes Rise Korea's English learning centers from its competitors, the CEO says, is its global presence and access to quality learning tools.
It has its global headquarters in Dublin, Ireland, Asian headquarters in Singapore and a business in Korea, as well as joint ventures throughout Asia. It also holds a perpetual license to HMH to use its products.
Rise Korea is attempting to promote exchanges between students of learning centers based in different countries.
"There is an online program where students of various countries can provide input and we are preparing to host an international competition next year," O'Callaghan said.
"Students of Rise Korea, as well as China and Japan, will compete, and they will be able to check their performance at a global level."