South Korea is one of the top-performing OECD countries in reading literacy, mathematics and sciences with the average student scoring 542. The country has one of the worlds highest-educated labour forces among OECD countries. The country is well known for its obsession with education, which has come to be called "education fever". The resource-poor nation is consistently ranked amongst the top for global education. In the 2014 national rankings of students’ math and science scores by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), South Korea ranked second place worldwide, after Singapore.
Higher education is an overwhelmingly serious issue in South Korea society, where it is viewed as one of the fundamental cornerstones of South Korean life. Education is regarded with a high priority for South Korean families as success in education is necessary for improving one's socioeconomic position in South Korean society. Academic success is often a source of pride for families and within South Korean society at large. South Koreans view education as the main propeller of social mobility for themselves and their family as a gateway to the South Korean middle class. Graduating from a top university is the ultimate marker of prestige, high socioeconomic status, promising marriage prospects, and a respectable career path. An average South Korean child's life revolves around education as pressure to succeed academically is deeply ingrained in South Korean children from an early age. Those who lack a formal university education often face social prejudice.
In 2015, the country spent 4.7% of its GDP on all levels of education – roughly equal to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average. A strong investment in education, a militant drive for success as well as the passion for excellence has helped the resource poor country rapidly grow its economy over the past 60 years from a war-torn wasteland. South Korea’s zeal for education and its students’ desires to get into a prestigious university is one of the highest in the world, as the entrance into a top tier higher educational institution leads to a prestigious, secure and well-paid white collar job with the government, banks, a major South Korean conglomerate such as Samsung, Hyundai or LG Electronics. With incredible pressure on high school students to secure places at the nation’s best universities, its institutional reputation and alumni networks are strong predictors of future career prospects. The top three universities in South Korea, often referred to as "SKY", are Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University. Intense competition and pressure to earn the highest grades is deeply ingrained in the psyche of South Korean students at a young age. Yet with only so many places at universities and even fewer places at top-tier companies, many young people remain disappointed and are often unwilling to lower their sights with the result of many feeling as underachievers. There is a major cultural taboo in South Korean society attached to those who have not achieved formal university education where those who don't hold university degrees face social prejudice and are often looked down by others as second-class citizens resulting fewer opportunities for employment, improvement of one's socioeconomic position and prospects for marriage.
International reception on the South Korean education system has been divided. It has been praised for various reasons, including its comparatively high test results and its major role in ushering South Korea's economic development creating one of the world’s most educated workforces. South Korea's highly enviable academic performance has gotten British education ministers actively remodeling their own curriculum's and exams to try to emulate Korea's militant drive and passion for excellence and high educational achievement. U.S. President Barack Obama has also praised the country's rigorous school system, where over 80 percent of South Korean high school graduates go on to university. The nation's high university entrance rate has created a highly skilled workforce making South Korea among the most highly educated countries in the world with the one of the highest percentage of its citizens holding a tertiary education degree. Bachelor's degrees are held by 68 percent of South Koreans aged 25–34, the most in the OECD.
The system's rigid and hierarchical structure has been criticized for stifling creativity and innovation; described as intensely and "brutally" competitive, The system is often blamed for the high suicide rate in South Korea, particularly the growing rates among those aged 10–19. Various media outlets attribute the nations high suicide rate on the nationwide anxiety around the country's college entrance exams, which determine the trajectory of students entire lives and careers. Former South Korean hagwon teacher Se-Woong Koo wrote that the South Korean education system amounts to child abuse and that it should be "reformed and restructured without delay." The system has also been criticized for producing an excess supply of university graduates creating an overeducated and underemployed labor force; in the first quarter of 2013 alone, nearly 3.3 million South Korean university graduates were jobless, leading many graduates overqualified for jobs requiring less education. Further criticism has been stemmed for causing labor shortages in various skilled blue collar labor and vocational occupations, where many go unfilled as the negative social stigma associated with vocational careers and not having a university degree continues to remain deep-rooted in South Korean society.