Every October, hundreds of South Korean teachers and professors are sequestered — like jurors in a mafia trial — in a secret, guarded compound: prisoners of their country’s obsession with education.
For one month, they are kept in complete isolation under conditions that resemble house arrest, with everything down to their food waste subject to rigorous examination.
Their sole task is to compile the annual college entrance exam — the importance of which in the minds of stressed-out students and their often equally stressed-out parents is almost impossible to exaggerate.
Success in the exam — meaning a secured place in one of South Korea’s elite universities — is seen as the key in a hyper-competitive society to everything from future careers to marriage prospects.
“The stakes are simply too high ... and that’s why we have to eliminate any possibility of a leak,” an official at the state-run Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation (KICE) told AFP. Altogether, some 700 people are secluded away in an undisclosed location every year to put the test-paper together.
As well as the compilers, there is a sizeable support staff of domestic and medical personnel, whose main role is to ensure that the question writers have no reason to leave the compound.
The process begins in mid-September, when state education authorities handpick prominent college professors and school teachers in subjects from maths to English across the country.
Participation is voluntary, and there is a financial incentive with the average compiler paid around US$10,000 for their efforts.
‘Security is paramount’
But those who have taken part in previous years say the experience can be stressful and isolating, despite the feeling of camaraderie that develops among the “inmates”.
Nobody is allowed to leave the compound, which is ringed by fences, monitored by surveillance cameras and guarded by police and private security staff.
All mobile phones are confiscated at the outset and there is no phone or Internet access in the building, meaning no contact with friends or family for the duration.
“This is a test that determines the lives of 600,000 youngsters every year and is closely watched by their parents ... so all question makers understand that security is paramount,” said Kwon Oryang, a professor at Seoul National University who headed the exam-setting committee in 2012. Kwon declined to discuss any details of the committee’s work but stressed that all the teachers and professors had been aware of the “immense responsibility” on their shoulders.
“The whole thing may look bizarre to those outside the country, but this is part of our culture that values education above all,” Kwon said.
Such is the level of secrecy that Kwon, as chair of the committee, is one of the few not bound by a mandatory confidentiality agreement that prohibits participants from ever revealing they helped compile the exam.
Recent examples of pre-examination skullduggery — although not involving the college entrance test — suggest that the precautions are not wholly unjustified.
Earlier this year, the US administrator of the SAT — the most widely used test for applying to US colleges — scrapped the scheduled May 4 exams in South Korea after discovering questions were already circulating among some test-preparation schools in Seoul.