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[Editorial] Candlelight nightmare

Friday is the 24th anniversary of massive civil disobedience against a military-backed strongman. White-collar workers as well as student activists rose up against President Chun Doo-hwan, a former Army general, demanding that democracy be restored. Chun capitulated three weeks later, on June 29, promising a direct popular vote to elect the next president.

Students are set to stage another protest on Friday, this time demanding that university tuition fees be cut by half. Hard-pressed parents, advocacy groups and, of course, vote-besotted politicians are also expected to participate in a candlelight rally, one reminiscent of the huge 2008 nighttime gathering against beef imports from the United States ― undoubtedly a nightmare for President Lee Myung-bak’s administration.

Students’ demand to cut tuition fees by half was first espoused by the main opposition Democratic Party, which included it in its policy on the promotion of general welfare in the areas of education, medical care and child care. It did not take long before the ruling Grand National Party followed suit apparently with voter support in mind ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for next year.

But the problem with the rival political parties is that they have no concrete plan regarding how to finance the proposed across-the-board tuition cut. All that the opposition says is it can be done by saving from budget allocations, mending the tax system and improving welfare programs. No less disappointing is the ruling party, which has yet to decide which to propose: cutting tuition fees for all students or for students from needy families.

Given the nation’s limited budgetary resources, spending more on education means spending less on other areas. But can a greater subsidy for university education be justified just because student activists are better organized in their demands than physically disabled and other underprivileged people?

The Lee administration vows not to be swayed by the demand for a tuition cut and other populist general welfare programs. But it needs to build a public consensus on fiscal prudence if it wishes to hold fast in the face of mounting pressure from well-organized advocacy groups and the political community.
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