A drama about wealthy families ruthlessly competing over their children’s academic achievements has gripped South Korea and apparently fuelled a trend for using cram schools or to even seek out mysterious university “fixers” to gain access to the country’s elite colleges.
SKY Castle, a tragi-comic miniseries, has replaced the usual romantic hits of South Korean cable TV with the tale of exam stress and the bitter rivalry between super-rich “tiger moms” who use their children’s success at school in a wily game of one-upmanship to climb further up the social ladder.
On the surface, the four main families are already the epitome of success. Living in the exclusive estates peppering the hills around Seoul, the wives are manicured to perfection and the husbands have risen to the top of their careers as surgeons or businessmen.
The cutthroat education system, however, still offers the characters an outlet through which to assert their dominance over each other.
The acronym SKY is built out of the names of South Korea’s top three universities – Seoul National, Korea university and Yonsei – which in real life promise their graduates the social standing and connections to rise to the top of Asia’s fourth largest economy.
Competition for places is fierce and research has shown that South Korean children are among the most stressed – with some of the longest study hours – in the world as they fight for admission.
While the dysfunctional characters in the series add to the parody, the germs of its success lie in the relatable depiction of the crushing pressures of the South Korean education system, which has driven young students to despair and sometimes tragically to suicide.
Central to the plot is Kim Ju-young, a coldly efficient university “coordinator” who once worked as an admissions officer at Seoul National University and who now advises the families privately on how to advance their children through the elite education system.
According to Lee Bohm, an education critic and a founding member of Megastudy, a massive private education corporation, the drama and Ms Kim’s role has generated demand from parents who want to find similar “fixers” to assist their own children.
“It’s obvious that the writers of the drama are being critical, and the reality is exaggerated. However, many people sympathise with the students in the drama because they also went through a similar competitive system,” he said.
“Many parents have started to look for similar services through consultants and I even have people asking me if these private coordinators actually exist.”
Mr Lee, who has worked in the educational field for decades, believes that they do. In a Telegraph interview, he described them as well-connected figures, often with a background in the education field, who operate discreetly in the shadows.
“I’ve heard the coordinators are people who worked as chief consultants for private education institutes. There are also mothers of the students who acted dominantly within the mother groups. They have extensive knowledge of the system and influence over other students’ mothers as well,” he said.
While coordinators served as tailor-made educational consultants, “they also act as the student’s manager. They take care of everything including what kind of friends the student makes,” said Mr Lee.
“The number of coordinators is very small as they can only focus on one student at a time..They can’t be hired by just searching for them on the internet and are known to operate secretly, catering only to rich clients,” he added.
“They charge a lot of money and it’s illegal to pay that much for private education as there is a limit set by the government. They are known to earn six figure salaries for taking care of a student for one year,” he claimed.
SKY Castle’s popularity has skyrocketed – with one episode breaking viewership records and scriptwriters producing an additional four episodes to meet demand – but in reality, it is the middle classes who tend to worry more about their children’s academic path.
“The wealthiest people don’t really obsess about putting their kids through the competitive system as they can pass their wealth onto their children…In fact, many wealthy families just send their kids to universities overseas,” said Mr Lee.
For parents who want to guarantee their child a good future job, private cram schools, known as hagwons, are often a more affordable option than fixers. Their number has drastically increased over the past decade, with tens of thousands of private educational institutes in Seoul alone.
The pressure is so extreme that in 2008, the Seoul education authorities banned institutes from teaching high school students after 10pm, despite the opposition of many parents to the time limit.
For experts like Mr Lee, drastic reforms of the university entrance system, including more government control, is the answer.
“The competition and private education craze in Korea has lost its mind. It’s gone too far. So unless an extraordinary alternative comes up, nothing will change,” he said.