[Outlook]The limits of a tuition freeze

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[Outlook]The limits of a tuition freeze

Local universities, including Seoul National, Korea and Ewha, announced that they would freeze their tuition fees in a bid to reduce the financial burden on students.

The general public welcomed the decision, and last week the education minister pressed the chancellors of more universities to freeze tuition fees at their schools as well.

It seems reasonable not to raise the fees from last year’s level as part of measures to deal with the worsening global economic crisis. However, we should think again about whether a tuition freeze is our best option.

First of all, such a measure is just a way of minimizing conflicts that may arise due to the economic crisis, not a method of overcoming the crisis.

Since 84 percent of high school graduates go on to pursue post-secondary education in Korea, the largest such figure in the world, the topic of college tuition is not only an education issue but a political one as well.

It is understandable that some are concerned that if universities raise tuition fees amid the worsening economic crisis, it may lead to conflict at the political and social level.

However, we shouldn’t forget that even though times are hard, we need to prepare for our future in order to overcome the meltdown.

The most effective way to do that is to invest in our human resources.

Such investment is usually done through universities. Thus, the worry is that putting a cap on tuition fees may damage the quality of education, weakening the country’s competitiveness in the long run and prolonging the process of overcoming the economic turmoil.

Another question is whether or not limits to university fees really help low-income families.

The fact is that they don’t, despite what common assumptions would suggest. Instead, tuition freezes help out rich families.

Such measures make it possible for people with high incomes to pay less for tuition even though they can afford more, and thus these people benefit the most.

In order to support people at the lower end of the income spectrum, it would be much more effective to allow universities to raise tuition fees and use the extra money for scholarships.

Considering the higher education policy that the Lee Myung-bak administration presented when it came into office, its efforts to freeze tuition seem inconsistent.

The basis of the government’s policy regarding universities is to give more autonomy to the schools.

The administration shouldn’t be emphasizing autonomy only when circumstances permit.

It should examine all issues through the lens of its original policy, even when it is difficult to forge forward.

Even though times are hard, autonomy does not mean summoning university chancellors whenever difficulties arise and asking them favors that affect the management of their schools.

Raising tuition and enhancing a university’s competence are usually at odds.

The only way to pursue both is to help universities with their financing, or for the state to raise a scholarship fund.

But there seem to be few alternatives for us to support students. If tuition fees are to be kept as they are, then student loans should be greatly expanded.

There are many potential benefits from student loans, which entail students paying back money they borrow for tuition after graduation, when their incomes reach a certain level.

Introduction of the system will require a large budget but it can minimize social conflict, support people with low incomes and enhance the competitiveness of universities at the same time.

If the administration can’t financially support universities and students, the only choice left is to allow schools to accept students who make donations.

Now is the time for the government to think seriously about the issue and make a prudent decision.

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

by Ha Yeon-seob
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