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Universities competing for government funding

May 17,2014
When Seowon University in Cheongju, North Chungcheong, announced last month that it would abolish its art department and transfer art majors to the beauty department, an outraged mob swept into the school president’s office for a sit-in demonstration.

“I want to draw at ease,” some of the pickets read. “Save us,” others wrote.

But Seowon University isn’t alone. Sociology students from Cheongju University also set up a tent on campus last month after the school announced the abolishment of their department.

Demonstrators pounded drums with one hand and lifted hand-written posters, with letters emblazoned in red-and-black ink on a white background, in the other.

“The university is blinded by money,” the signboards said. Others wrote, “A neglect of real education.”

The decisions by schools like Seowon University and Cheongju University are in response to the Ministry of Education’s recent announcement that it would award government funding to certain higher education institutions for approved projects.

Schools who wish to apply for funding for these government-supported projects are required to submit their business plans, wherein the institutions with the best blueprints will be tapped to receive extra funding.

The competition is fierce, with the number of schools applying to a single project sometimes reaching double digits. As the number of university graduates declines in Korea, the government has been pushing higher education institutions to decrease the number of admissions. For schools that apply for government-supported projects, a cut to enrollment numbers may just provide the “extra points” some universities need to win the bid.

“These collegiate projects will altogether be allotted 2 trillion won [$1.9 billion] of the government budget over the next five years,” said Kang Byung-su, the head of Chungnam University’s planning department, “which is why for universities, [the projects are] almost like a lifeline.”

Another planning department head from a private university in the metropolitan area, who requested anonymity, said his school increased cuts in enrollment to match a rival school.

“We initially planned on cutting back 7 percent,” he said. “But after hearing that our competitor was cutting admissions by 10 percent, we raised [the bar] to 10 percent.”

After that decision is made, it’s “painstaking” to draw up plans to merge or abolish departments, he added, because university authorities face backlash from professors and students.

For some universities that already planned on making cuts because of financial problems, even before the ministry’s announcement, the extra slash they are nudged to make means their financial standing will be further stifled.

“If we don’t win the bid, our very existence will be put at risk,” said the planning office head of a private university in South Jeolla. “We have to limit the entrance quota anyway, which means we’re left with less income from students’ tuition.”

A school official from a private university in South Gyeongsang added that universities nationwide were suffering from the government’s move to “start with cutting entrance quotas instead of coming up with policies to shut down universities with poor finances.”

BY LEE SUNG-EUN, KIM KI-HWAN [selee@joongang.co.kr]




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