[Outlook]Paying for school

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[Outlook]Paying for school

‘Mom, where’s the beef for our meals?” “Sweetie, your tuition has gone up again.”
This conversation was written on a large piece of paper and hung at a prominent place on campus. It was put up by a university student union. Every spring, students and universities struggle over tuition fees.
If things get serious, students pitch tents in front of their schools’ headquarters. Students used to demonstrate for democracy before but now the biggest task faced by student unions this spring is to fight against tuition increases. In the last presidential election and the current legislative elections, many candidates addressed the issue of rising tuition fees. Not only members of the Democratic Labor Party but also members of the United Democratic Party and the Grand National Party have promised to put limits on tuition or to allow students to pay tuition later, when they have incomes.
Korea’s universities are not competitive by global standards. The professor-to-student ratio is much worse in college than in elementary or middle school. Students are dissatisfied with the classes and educational opportunities being offered as they are not good compared to prestigious universities in other countries. But because universities depend on student tuition for their financing, it is difficult to improve.
Are tuition fees at Korean universities high by global standards as well? They are not low at all, according to a recent study that compared university tuitions, by taking purchasing power into account. Tuition in Korea is lower than in the United States but higher than in Japan. Korean college students have to pay much more than students in Europe as most schools in Europe are state universities. Why do Korean students pay more than those in other countries, even though Korean universities don’t offer satisfactory services?
We can find the answer if we compare the ways universities finance themselves. In three out of four Korean universities, tuition accounts for 70 or 80 percent of their finances. In the United States, three out of four college students go to state universities where tuition accounts for no more than 20 percent of financing.
In Europe, tuition now accounts for a higher percentage of university financing than before, but most universities are funded by the state. In Japan, the state provides a portion of ordinary expenditures for private universities, helping them to be less dependent on tuition fees.
It doesn’t seem easy to solve the problems associated with university tuition. Many say it is too early for Korea to allow students who contribute financially to schools to attend the schools. The culture of donation is not commonplace as it is in the Western world. It is also hard to expect support from companies. Thus, the government must step up. The core of the new administration’s measure is to introduce a state scholarship system that offers different options to people depending on their circumstances. The state scholarship fund will grow, and students below the absolute poverty line or just above that group will be provided with scholarships. Those who are better off will be allowed to take out student loans or receive other forms of support.
The government also plans to introduce an income-contingent loan scheme. The outline is that when students attend special graduate schools in which tuitions are high but graduates are expected to make a lot of money after graduation, students don’t need to pay tuition while they are studying, regardless of family income. Their loans will later be deducted from their incomes. This scheme must be prepared carefully so that people do not misuse it.
The government must differentiate ways to support state universities and private ones. Currently, the government provides full-scale support to some universities and no support to others, depending on who established the school, even when the schools offer more or less the same curriculum. State-owned universities do not increase tuition but they increase student activity fees by the double digits.
Private universities have been heavily dependent on tuition and they don’t work hard enough to find other ways to finance themselves. This must end.
Universities have to be given autonomy and allowed to compete against each other in good ways. They need to compete to offer the best education and decide tuition based on what they offer. Universities must publicize their incomes and expenditures to allow consumers to compare schools and choose what suits them best.
The conflict over university tuition can be resolved when the government increases its support for universities and universities improve their financing and spending efficiently.

*The writer is a professor of public administration at Ewha Womans University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Park Jhung-soo

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