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South Korea to Hold College Entrance Test Amid Pandemic 'Third Wave'

Buddhist believers pray for their children’s success in the college entrance examinations amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, at a Buddhist temple in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 2, 2020.
Buddhist believers pray for their children’s success in the college entrance examinations amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, at a Buddhist temple in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 2, 2020.

As nearly a half-million South Korean students prepare to take an all-important college entrance examination later this week, health and education officials are stepping up efforts to prevent test sites from becoming coronavirus hotspots.

On Thursday, much of South Korea will quiet down as students in their third and final year of high school complete a test that is widely seen as having an oversized impact on one’s academic, professional and even marital prospects. Officials say that roughly 490,000 people have applied for this year’s one and only College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), better known in Korean as the suneung.

Like on nearly every previous test day, airplane flight patterns will be diverted away from some 1,300 testing locations nationwide, the country’s stock market will open late and all nearby construction will come to a grinding halt in hopes of eliminating potential distractions. But, unlike in any other year, all students will be wearing masks, plexiglas barriers will be installed between desks and anyone presenting possible COVID-19 symptoms will be quarantined at an alternate testing center.

FILE - Students wearing masks look at a mobile phone amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Seoul, South Korea, Aug. 25, 2020.
FILE - Students wearing masks look at a mobile phone amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Seoul, South Korea, Aug. 25, 2020.

For most students, who’ve spent much of their academic careers studying for the suneung, the exam day was already a high-stakes challenge. And now in the midst of a pandemic that has disrupted the school year and their attempts to prepare for the exam, the test has become even more anxiety-provoking.

“I was breathless while taking my practice test with a mask on,” said 18-year-old Shin Min-seon, who hopes to score well enough to get into one of South Korea’s top universities and study media. “We’re nervous, we’re going to suffocate while taking the suneung and our scores are going to be affected this year because we have to wear masks.”

South Korean officials are trying to thread the needle between administering the CSAT and protecting the health of test-takers while not causing these students to panic over all the anti-virus precautions.

Health authorities already say the country is in the midst of a “third wave” of coronavirus infections and have elevated social distancing measures, including restricting operating hours and dining policies at restaurants and coffee shops.

FILE - A social distancing sign is seen as people wait to buy tickets at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 13, 2020.
FILE - A social distancing sign is seen as people wait to buy tickets at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 13, 2020.

On Wednesday, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 511 new COVID-19 cases, a relatively high number for the country, which has won praise from around the globe for its contact tracing and testing methods, but continues to face sporadic cluster outbreaks.

The CSAT was originally scheduled for mid-November, but because the academic year was postponed by several weeks at the start of the pandemic and classes were temporarily moved online, officials pushed back the date to December 3.

The Ministry of Education has opened 86 remote test facilities for students who are currently in isolation or who show signs of COVID-19 infection. Leading up to this week, officials urged the test-takers to refrain from attending after-school tutoring academies, spending time in online game parlors or meeting with friends in tightly packed karaoke studios.

Inside exam centers, students are being asked to avoid mingling during breaks and to wear warm clothes since windows will be left open for ventilation.

High school underclassmen, who usually gather in the early hours of the morning outside exam sites to cheer on the seniors, have been discouraged from congregating on Thursday and parents of suneung-takers have also been asked to not wait for their children at those locations, according to guidance issued by the government.

FILE - Ma Seo-bin, center, a high school senior at an elite school, speaks in between her father Ma Moon Young, left, and mother Choi Hae-jeong during an interview at their home in Siheung, South Korea, on Sept. 19, 2020.
FILE - Ma Seo-bin, center, a high school senior at an elite school, speaks in between her father Ma Moon Young, left, and mother Choi Hae-jeong during an interview at their home in Siheung, South Korea, on Sept. 19, 2020.

In the United States, college entrance test dates for the SAT and ACT have been canceled or rescheduled multiple times this year. But, in South Korea, there was never concern that the suneung would be officially called off.

Because of the importance ascribed to the test as well as the money that many Korean families spend on tutoring for their children, Seoul “had no option” but to allow the test to move forward, said Andrew Eungi Kim, a professor in the Division of International Studies at Korea University.

“If there was an attempt to cancel the test, there would be a demonstration not by the students, but by their mothers,” he said.

In 2019, South Korean families spent $19 billion on private education for their grade school students, according to Statistics Korea.

Kim says in South Korea, when a student earns a university degree, it “carries much more weight” than in many other countries. A high CSAT test result is the entry point into a prestigious school, which leads to promotions in leading conglomerates and in turn increases one’s marriageability, he explains.

Kim says CSAT-takers from affluent families most likely will not be too affected due to this year’s academic complications, but not so for those who come from households that can’t afford the extra-curricular cramming or virtual learning.

“The pandemic has disrupted public education and has effected the middle and lower class much more,” he says.

On the eve of the suneung, test-takers received an apology of sorts from President Moon Jae-in for all the complications during this year’s exam.

FILE - South Korean President Moon Jae-in talks on the phone with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Sept. 24, 2020.
FILE - South Korean President Moon Jae-in talks on the phone with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Sept. 24, 2020.

“It's hard to prepare for the CSAT itself, and it will be even more difficult and worrisome to take the exam in the coronavirus situation,” he wrote on his social media accounts, which was translated into English by the Yonhap News Agency.

"I feel sorry [as the president]. I'd like to put warm scarves around your necks.”

Juhyun Lee contributed to this report.

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Australian, Chinese university chiefs meet in Adelaide

FILE - Students walk around the University of New South Wales campus in Sydney, Australia, Dec. 1, 2020.
FILE - Students walk around the University of New South Wales campus in Sydney, Australia, Dec. 1, 2020.

Australian university leaders held talks Wednesday with their Chinese counterparts over the Canberra government’s plans to cut the number of international students. Australia has said the reductions will ease the stress on housing and reduce immigration.

Representatives from the Group of Eight Universities, which represents large research-intensive institutions in Australia, met Wednesday in Adelaide with leaders from the China Education Association for International Exchange.

The Chinese delegation included senior officials from 22 leading research-intensive universities in China.

In a joint statement, the two groups said that “our research and education links not only deliver enormous economic and social benefits for both countries, but also foster enduring people-to-people ties.”

The talks focused on “constructive dialogue focused on challenges and opportunities around university research in a fast-evolving, globalized world.”

One major challenge is Australia’s plans to cap the number of international students it allows into the country to relieve pressure on housing and rental accommodation in the major cities. It is part of a broader effort to reduce immigration.

In 2023, official data showed that 787,000 international students studied in Australia, exceeding levels seen before the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the tertiary sector says plans to shut out some foreign students would cost the economy billions of dollars.

Vicki Thompson is the chief executive of the Group of Eight Universities. She told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Wednesday that it is unclear how far international student numbers would be cut.

“At the moment there is a lot of unknowns about what this will actually mean. We are in very good discussions with government, though. They certainly understand the impact that our international education sector has on tourism, on the economy. So, you know, they do not want to bust it either. It is just how can we come to, I guess, a compromise position where, you know, we do not damage one of our most successful export markets,” she said.

Most overseas students in Australia come from China, India, Nepal, the Philippines and Vietnam, according to government data.

Under the government’s plans, colleges and universities would have to provide purpose-built accommodation for international students if they wanted to exceed the caps on numbers.

Specific quotas for foreign students, however, have not yet been made public by the Canberra government.

Australia’s plan to curb the number of students from other countries is expected to be discussed when Chinese Premier Li Qiang meets Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Canberra next month.

Some shuttered universities appear to reopen on the web 

FILE - A magnifying glass is held in front of a computer screen in this picture illustration taken in Berlin, May 21, 2013.
FILE - A magnifying glass is held in front of a computer screen in this picture illustration taken in Berlin, May 21, 2013.

At least nine universities that have closed appeared to be looking for new students on the web, but the schools are neither accredited nor cleared to accept student aid.

In a USA Today investigation, Chris Quintana looks at what might be going on with the imposter websites. (May 2024)

Taliban push for normalizing male-only higher education

FILE - Taliban members are seen at Kabul University in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 14, 2023.
FILE - Taliban members are seen at Kabul University in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 14, 2023.

In coming weeks, tens of thousands of students in Afghanistan are set to sit for university entrance examinations.

Notably absent from the list of candidates will be females.

The upcoming exams are expected to determine the admission of about 70,000 students to public academic and professional institutions this year.

Last week, when officials from the Taliban's Ministry of Higher Education unveiled the specifics of the upcoming exams, they conspicuously omitted any mention of the exclusion of female students from university admissions.

Despite facing widespread domestic and international criticism for their prohibition of women from educational and professional opportunities, the Taliban have persisted in enforcing discriminatory gender policies.

“The exclusion of women from higher education significantly limits the country's economic potential, as half the population is unable to contribute effectively to the workforce,” David Roof, a professor of educational studies at Ball State University, wrote to VOA.

In December 2022, the Taliban suspended nearly 100,000 female students enrolled in both public and private universities across Afghanistan.

With the nation already grappling with some of the most dire female literacy rates globally, Afghanistan has failed to produce any female professionals over the past two years.

According to aid agencies, the absence of female medical professionals, compounded by other restrictions, has contributed to the deaths of thousands of young mothers in Afghanistan.

The United Nations reports that over 2.5 million Afghan school-age girls are deprived of education.

“The interruption in education can result in a generational setback, where entire cohorts of women remain uneducated and unqualified for professional roles,” Roof said.

'Hermit kingdom'

The elusive supreme leader of the Taliban, Hibatullah Akhundzada, purportedly responsible for the ban on women's education and employment, has never publicly clarified his directive.

Initially, when secondary schools were shuttered for girls in March 2022, Taliban officials said the action was "temporary," insisting that the Islamist leadership did not fundamentally oppose women's education.

However, more than two years later, Taliban officials have provided no rationale for the continued absence of girls from classrooms.

“They have normalized gender-apartheid,” said an Afghan women’s rights activist who did not want to be named in this article, fearing the Taliban’s persecution.

“This is a new norm in Afghanistan, however insane and destructive it may look in the rest of the world,” she added.

In January 2022, the U.S. Department of State appointed Rina Amiri as the special envoy for Afghan women, aiming to garner international backing for Afghan women's rights.

Amiri has actively engaged with Muslim leaders, emphasizing the importance of women's rights in Islam, in hopes of influencing Taliban leaders.

Despite these efforts, there has been no indication from Taliban leaders of any intention to abandon their discriminatory policies against women. “There is no indication this will subside,” Amiri told a Congressional hearing in January.

Senior U.S. officials have also warned the Taliban that there will be no normalization in their relations with the international community unless they allow women to return to work and education.

Thus far, the Taliban’s response has been that they value depriving women of basic human rights more than having normal relations with the rest of the world.

Hong Kong can help link students in US, China 

FILE - A visitor sets up his camera in the Victoria Peak area to photograph Hong Kong's skyline, Sept. 1, 2019.
FILE - A visitor sets up his camera in the Victoria Peak area to photograph Hong Kong's skyline, Sept. 1, 2019.

Pandemics, climate change and other global challenges require nations and scientists to work together, and student exchanges are a great way to foster that cooperation.

Writing in The South China Morning Post, Brian Y.S. Wong explains that Hong Kong has a crucial role to play in connecting students in the United States and China. (May 2024)

Learn about religious accommodations in US colleges  

FILE - St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., March 16, 2022.
FILE - St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., March 16, 2022.

From prayer services to housing options and vegetarian meal selections, colleges in the United States offer ways to accommodate students of various faiths.

In U.S. News & World Report,Anayat Durrani explains how you can learn about religious accommodations at colleges and universities. (April 2024)

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