After Decades of Building Colleges, South Korea Faces a Lack of Students

Lee Jae-won, Reuters, Landov

Students from a high school in South Korea cheer for their seniors before a college entrance-examination hall. A declining birthrate means the country's higher-education system is being forced to close some institutions.
November 27, 2011

It has become something of a joke here. At the same time President Obama is lavishly praising South Korea's education system, South Koreans are heaping criticism on it.

In speeches about America's relative decline, Mr. Obama has repeatedly singled out South Korea's relentless educational drive, its high university enrollment, and its steady production of science and engineering graduates as worthy of emulation.

His South Korean counterpart, meanwhile, warns of a glut of university graduates and a work force hard-wired to outdated 20th-century manufacturing skills. "Reckless entrance into college is bringing huge losses to families and the country alike," said President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea recently.

Mr. Lee has raised eyebrows, and hackles, by suggesting that fewer people should go to college from a population of 50 million that sustains 3.8 million undergraduate and graduate students.

South Korea's achievements are certainly impressive. The Organisation for Economic and Co-operation and Development ranks its high-school students among the top three in the world in mathematics and science, a long way ahead of the United States, at 25th for math and 17th for science. Thanks to a huge two-decade expansion of higher education, 82 percent of those students now go on to study at two- or four-year colleges, according to the government-financed Korea Educational Development Institute—a remarkable feat for what was one of the poorest countries on the planet until the 1960s. As late as 1977, fewer than 5 percent of Korean 18- to 22-year-olds went to college.

But with a demographic crisis looming, the government now admits that the expansion has gone too far. "We allowed too many universities to open," says Sung Geun Bae, director general of South Korea's education ministry. Mr. Sung points out that his country simultaneously has one of the world's highest university enrollment rates—and one of the world's lowest birthrates. "Fifteen years ago we needed all those universities, but times have changed."

What that means for the nation's 40 public universities and 400 private colleges is still being debated across the nation, but the writing is on the wall. Education Minister Lee Ju-Ho warns that student enrollment at Korean colleges will plummet by 40 percent in the next 12 years. By 2016 there will already be more university places than high-school graduates, and many institutions will be forced to shut their gates or merge in what is likely to be a very painful downsizing for a nation that reveres education.

"We estimate that by 2040 around 100 universities will have to close," says Yu Hyunsook, director general of the Korean Educational Development Institute. Ms. Yu points out that the wheels of change have already started to turn; in January, a leading institution, the Seoul National University, will in effect be turned into a business—the first step in a government attempt to give public universities more autonomy and introduce market forces into higher education to make it more competitive.

That move faces resistance from the university's faculty members, who are concerned that the quality of education will suffer and about their job security, since the change means they will no longer be civil servants employed by the government but employees of the university.

But ultimately it is the huge private sector, which caters to about 80 percent of Korean students, where the pain is likely to be felt most—and the private providers are already under scrutiny. Some are exaggerating their number of students, covering up financial problems, and hiking student fees to unacceptable levels, says Ms. Yu. "Some are paying professors lower salaries than for primary schoolteachers."

To examine such claims, the South Korean government investigated a randomly chosen selection of 35 private and public universities. It found "habitual" accounting errors over the past five years worth a total of $580-million. Two private institutions, Myungshin University and Sunghwa College in South Korea's deep south, were ordered shut last month. That is very likely the tip of the iceberg.

The audit was sparked by widespread public discontent with the quality of education, just as the nation catches its breath—and counts the cost—of decades of breakneck growth. Even the country's top universities are under pressure to change. Rigid and exam driven, the education system funnels its best-performing students to a handful of elite universities and from there into Korea's top companies such as Samsung and Hyundai. Increasingly, however, the corporate sector is unable to absorb all those graduates, about 1.2 million of whom are unemployed.

Combining public and private spending, South Korea spends more on education as a proportion of its economy than all but one (Iceland) of the 34 OECD nations, and spending by South Korean families on private education, including test-preparation services, is the highest in the world, according to the latest education report by the international body.

Indeed, tuition is one of the biggest issues driving the public discontent with higher education. The fees have doubled in the last decade. Protests against educational costs forced President Lee to pledge during his 2007 presidential campaign that he would halve tuition, a promise he has yet to keep. News of widespread fraud in the government audit will almost certainly force the government to take some steps to curb fees.

In an effort to move the debate forward—and help families decrease education-related expenses—President Lee has proposed that parents lower their educational aspirations and consider vocational schools or other job-training opportunities rather than expensive four-year universities. The idea has been condemned by some, but Lee Seongho, a professor of education at Chung-Ang University says the president is correct—and that Mr. Obama shouldn't hold up South Korea as a model of education success.

"President Obama suffers from an illusion about South Korean education," he says.

Mr. Lee says that his students have unrealistic expectations about college and that an increasing number are out of work after graduation. "I say, 'Think seriously: Do you really want to waste a huge amount of money and four years of your life for nothing?'"

Commentators like Mr. Lee accept that the notion of downsizing a nation of such high educational achievers is politically fraught, but many say South Korea's higher-education system will emerge stronger. Ms. Yu of the Korean Educational Development Institute believes that competition will force universities to focus on quality and change how they teach. "I think we will start to think about whether it is necessary to have students in classrooms at all. There is a lot of innovation in digital and online colleges."

Mr. Lee agrees. "Times have changed, and we have new technologies and knowledge. I'm in favor of combining conventional methods with the innovative spirit, and we need a system that generates innovation and creativity." The question for Mr. Lee and others is whether universities can produce more innovation and creativity while preserving the strengths of their past during what is clearly a crossroads for the country's higher-education system.


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