South Korea is tackling education reform, but educators and officials say the habits of years of authoritarian control and mismanagement will be hard to break.

The government has maintained a tight grip on South Korea's restless universities, determining how many students can be enrolled and, until recently, dictating college curricula which included such subjects as "citizens' ethics."Educators feel this control may have increased problems, dividing students and teachers, and fostering "underground universities" where disaffected youths meet secretly to study banned books on North Korean leader Kim Il-sung and Karl Marx.

The government has eased restrictions on some communist literature in recent years, but Kim remains an excluded topic.

South Korea's politically motivated students have been the most visible sign of opposition to authoritarian rule through their street protests, which often include firebomb- and rock-throwing.

But officials say a commitment to reform by President Roh Tae-woo and Education Minister Chung Won-shik could shake up the whole university system.

"Historically, the ministry's bureaucracy thought it was their responsibility to allow universities to open, to command them when to close, and even how many students, what kind of grade distribution . . . " said Lee Young-duk, former head of the state-funded Korea Education Development Institute.

"Now the reaction is very strong. Students want to control the universities. . . . The new minister is a believer in university autonomy. Reform doesn't necessarily mean in law, but in bureaucrats. They have to give up their grip," he said.

Last year the government abolished perhaps the harshest of all controls - a system in which teachers were forced to fail students to maintain a quota on numbers of graduates.

Many South Koreans saw this as a means to give the government power to expel radical students.

Officials and educators say relaxing government control will have a good effect but students, teachers and parents will still face problems.

The first stumbling block is the rigid multiple-choice national entrance exam. From primary school onwards, teaching is devoted to training students to get a good score. Teenagers study up to 15 hours a day, forgoing play and relaxation.

"Students are used to being trained to pick up the right answer among several choices. We need more analysis," said Kim Suhng-dohng, director of the university education division at the Ministry of Education.

"This is memorization and regurgitation. They've never done any library research. They don't know what to do. They don't know how to think, how to analyze," said Edward Poitras, a professor at the Methodist Theological Seminary in Seoul.

Competition is fierce - fed by a Confucian drive to be educated and social pressure to achieve. More than 90 percent of families aspire to a college degree for their children.

Those who do not score well must make an irrevocable decision - take the test again or settle for a second-rung school, sealing their fates in a country where the university attended determines job, pay and social status.

Many South Koreans say the exam is a main cause of teenage suicide.