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[Editorial] Tuition politics

One of the ugliest political scenes took place last week at the narrow Cheonggyecheon square in Seoul which was packed with university students holding candle lights in a rally demanding “halved tuition.” Opposition Democratic Party chairman Sohn Hak-kyu climbed onto the makeshift stage and urged the rallying students in his high-pitched voice to mount their pressure on the Lee Myung-bak government to achieve their goal.

Seventy-two students were taken to police stations for questioning in connection with what the authorities determined as an illegal demonstration but the DP’s Sohn and other officers left the place unhindered.

It was June 10, the anniversary of the pro-democracy uprising in 1987, which ended the long, military-backed authoritarian rule. During a party executive council meeting, the DP’s floor leader Kim Jin-pyo called the current tuition protests the third-round June struggle of the people after the second-round struggle in 2008 against U.S. beef imports.

The DP is not alone in maneuvering to take advantage of the students’ and their parents’ plights for political gain. The ruling Grand National Party’s new floor leader Hwang Woo-yea was in fact the first politician in a responsible position to make “halved tuition” a political issue this time. In his apparent haste to draw public attention, he suggested cutting university tuition by half in a meeting with the press late in May, without due consultation with party policy makers or the presidential office.

Thus the genie is out of the bottle. Our politicians uncorked it and nobody knows how the issue will develop. In one corner of the political arena, a hot debate is under way as to the origin of the term “halved tuition.” Oppositionists claim that it was included in the Grand National Party’s 2007 presidential campaign promises and was one of President Lee’s campaign pledges. The presidential office has rebutted this, saying the manifesto promised “halved apartment prices” but not “halved tuition.”

Judging from these controversies, the tuition issue is a great burden not only for the government, political parties and university operators but for society as a whole. Deep in their conscience, individual politicians should be aware that it is not a problem that can be solved through political agitation. The immediate question is how to find the 2 trillion to 3 trillion won (about $2 billion to $3 billion) in state finances, but the problems stretch to adjusting the demand and supply of higher education through the restructuring of universities.

The tuition question gathered urgency last year when students’ annual payments exceeded 10 million won at some private institutions. As students and civic groups complained of the skyrocketing cost of tuition, schools protested the relatively low state spending on higher education. Education authorities, school foundations and civic groups each quoted different OECD figures to support their claims and attack others’ logic.

At last, the Board of Audit and Inspection announced last week it would start exhaustive inspections of all 200 four-year universities to check whether their current levels of tuition are appropriate or not. Now the association of private universities is reported to be preparing a statement of protest claiming an infringement on the independence of universities.

Independence is a good cause, but the universities’ case is weak when most of them depend almost entirely on tuition fees and government subsidies with little contribution from productive assets, and when many schools keep huge reserve funds to expand facilities while scholarship funds remain minimal. Here is the room for interference by our politicians with their skilled agitation.

But politicians should never be allowed to show up at student rallies. Parties should work out a reasonable formula to support universities in return for clean finance, removing any bubble in tuition that may be uncovered through the BAI inspection. Continued political maneuvers will face a severe backlash from the wise electorate next year.
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