Education Ministry officials might have thought they would do a good thing for college students by freezing tuition fees for more than a decade. Maybe not.
Rather, it might be the students themselves who become the ultimate victims of the measure further aggravating the financial conditions of local universities, resulting in a drop in the quality of higher education.
The poor quality of higher education would combine with sluggish scientific and other fields of research at universities to weaken the country’s competitiveness.
The Ministry of Education recently announced guidelines for setting tuition charges for next year that would allow colleges to increase fees by up to 2.25 percent on the condition they give up applying for a state-funded scholarship program. Those excluded from the program will automatically be disqualified from participating in government-funded projects worth 1.2 trillion won ($1.07 billion) annually.
The guidelines have virtually forced universities in the country to freeze tuition fees while letting the government pretend to abide by the higher education law as amended in 2011. The revised law limits the annual tuition increase to 1.5 times the average inflation rate of the previous three years.
Since 2009, local universities have been under government control as it pertains to their tuition policies, being pushed to freeze or cut fees. They have coped with deteriorating financial conditions by reducing spending on faculty, research and student facilities as well as cutting the numbers and salaries of administrators.
As part of efforts to reduce costs, a university in Seoul has halved the number of lectures, reducing the credits required for graduation by 20 over the past decade to 120.
A continuous freeze on tuitions, coupled with a fall in enrollments, steep hikes in the minimum wage and a measure to improve the treatment for part-time lecturers, would push more colleges to the verge of the financial cliff.
Private universities, which rely more on tuitions for revenue than public ones, are facing more severe difficulties. In Korea, private colleges account for 80 percent of institutes of higher education, the highest proportion among major advanced nations. Leaving them in a chronic financial crunch would lead to degrading the country’s higher education system.
Enhancing the quality of colleges is becoming a crucial and urgent task for going ahead of others in the era of the “fourth industrial revolution.” There could be no bright future for the country if its universities struggle to just keep afloat, doing little to provide high-quality education for students and support high-level research.
It would put students from lower-income families at a greater disadvantage to graduate without the skills and knowledge needed to equalize opportunity.
The government should focus on enhancing the competiveness of universities rather than being preoccupied with freezing tuitions by using subsidies as a tool to put pressure on them. In fact, Korea lags far behind other major advanced nations in government support for higher education. Government assistance’s share of higher education expenses in the country remained at 29.3 percent last year, compared to an average 69.7 percent among member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The government should depart from its restrictive policy and give more autonomy to universities in setting tuition fees. In the first step, the Ministry of Education is now urged to lift the curbs that prohibit colleges from raising tuitions at the rate permitted under the law.
What also needs to be considered are measures to ease the weight of student loans. According to data from the ministry, the amount of student loan payments long overdue increased from 146.2 billion won in 2015 to 218 billion won last year. Student loans need to be more income-contingent, allowing students to pay back when they succeed in their careers. In addition, scholarship programs should be expanded and more needs-based.