[Viewpoint] Facing a critical student shortage

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[Viewpoint] Facing a critical student shortage

The number of high school graduates headed for two-year and four-year colleges has fallen for the first time in 19 years.

According to the Education, Science and Technology Ministry’s 2009 statistics, the college enrollment rate has been on an upward trend for the last two decades, reaching 83.8 percent in 2008 from 33.2 percent in 1990. But the curve headed south for the first time last year, edging down to 81.9 percent.

The college student population is also rapidly dwindling. The tally of high school graduates stopped at 580,000 last year, one-fourth of the figure of 2000. Half of all higher-education institutions, or 54.6 percent, failed to fill their new student quotas. College enrollment is expected to continue to fall, given the low birthrate, and the downturn in student population calls for accelerated restructuring efforts in the college community.

The fewer jobs available for college graduates amid a prolonged economic slowdown raise concerns about the country’s high ratio of college enrollment. About 500,000 students graduate from two-year or four-year institutions of higher learning every year. Of them, 400,000 look for jobs. But given the slack job market and economy, only half of them can find work. The rest will have to resort to parent support and join the ranks of the NEET: Not in Education, Employment or Training.

A recent study showed the number of unemployed youths with a full college education has hit 1 million. The corporate sector has called for rigorous efforts at universities to turn out more competent students and strengthen guidelines on graduation. Colleges will inevitably have to step up restructuring to cope with the decreasing number of new students. Otherwise they will not be able to address the problems of empty classrooms and unemployment among graduates.

In the longer run, they must contribute to making education the country’s driving engine toward an advanced society.

For restructuring, they must first of all voluntarily consider shutdowns or mergers. Institutions struggling with low enrollment and poor investment in infrastructure should close down. Schools in the same region must seek mergers. Authorities have been trying to address falling student populations by encouraging mergers among 14 private universities and the privatization of state and public universities as well as designating 16 schools that have made strides in reform efforts. But its efforts have met with resistance and cannot accommodate the rapid decrease in student numbers anyway.

Second, authorities must toughen the guidelines for licensing new institutions of higher learning. Twenty-four colleges have failed to open even after winning licenses. Authorities must strengthen criteria and turn away college foundations that fall below reasonable standards.

Third, universities must reinvent themselves to hone education quality. They must devote the same attention they pay to selecting new students to educating and training them for the job market.

Colleges must choose their goal, whether it is to foster experts in specific fields or turn out social leaders. They should study the case of Finland, which has pushed its universities to the world’s highest level by promoting campus research and development and internship-oriented education.

In an era where most can enter college, students will shun institutions that lack appeal and specialization.

Lastly, the government must diversify paths to higher education and careers. The current pattern of students entering college regardless of their capacity and wishes must change. Even seven out of 10 graduates of technical high schools, which are created for the purpose of training students to enter the job market immediately, still apply for college.

The unemployment problem among youth cannot be solved unless society offers more roads to adulthood than the college-graduation-job route most young Koreans are required to take.

Like Denmark and Finland, we must find and develop students’ aptitudes and capabilities early on and institute educational programs to meet their needs.

The government’s support for Meister vocational schools with tailored programs for specific jobs is a good example of one way for young people to survive and get ahead in the competitive job market without a college degree.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a researcher at the Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training.

By Chun Jae-shik
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