[Viewpoint] Half-price tuition is a half-baked ideaNearly four out of five Koreans supported college tuition cuts in a poll conducted by the JoongAng Ilbo, YTN and East Asia Institute. According to the survey, 58.4 percent said the tuition cut should be offered as long as the budget allows for it, while 19.9 percent said the tuition cut should be implemented even if it meant fiscal deficit.
The interpretation of “as long as the budget allows” could vary, but the Grand National Party’s interim leadership will probably feel encouraged that its tuition cut promise has won public backing after the pledge was made in the aftermath of the party’s by-election defeat. It can also enjoy the Democratic Party’s shock at having lost the momentum so quickly, because the DP had already been promoting the tuition cut as one of its welfare programs. Some in the Democratic Party are now even arguing that they should push for a zero tuition pledge.
College tuition has stood at the center of attention for two reasons. First is the belief that education is a key axis in the universal welfare program. Second is the reality that Korea’s college tuitions are too expensive. Both reasons are probably right. Universal education is an important duty of a country, and Korea’s tuitions are undeniably expensive. Heavy burdens make it impossible to provide universal education, and that will prompt the vicious cycle of poverty and the worsening wealth gap in our society.
Korea’s tuitions are expensive - both for private and public universities - particularly when they are compared with incomes. It is a natural course of action to find a way to lower tuitions. The problem is financial resources, as always. Two trillion ($1.8 billion) to 4 trillion won - amounting to 1 percent of the state budget - would be required, though that is not such a high figure if a tuition cut is truly the top priority.
What’s troublesome is whether the tuition cut is really the top priority for our country. Not to mention preparations for unification, there are other urgent issues such as child care and an aging society in order to address the widening wealth gap.
Many say that education is an investment for the future, and it is certainly true for an individual and a society. That is why the term “education welfare” was created and the government provides statutory education up to a certain level. But raising the bar beyond this level requires a social consensus as well as fiscal support. Have politicians seriously explored such issues before promoting promises of tuition cuts?
The idea of half-price tuition (which the GNP later backed away from) could be possible under the assumption that university education is part of universal education. In Korea, 79 percent of high school graduates advance to universities, and such an unprecedented situation may allow the public to find some grounds to make the argument.
But two important issues are missing. First, no one talks about free high school education. Second, no one gives a fair and cold evaluation of the current university education. Without talking about the two issues, talking about tuition cuts is simply not constructive for Korea.
In a country where 98 percent of students and parents want college education, and where 79 percent actually go to college, university education has probably become a prerequisite. But we must think whether it truly helps our future by continuing such a reality or by endorsing the reality by spending taxes. There are just so many issues that we should have explored before talking about tuition cuts.
Students face enormous stress and economic burden to get into college. They have to endure it because everyone else is going to college.
Education inflation has become a social waste. And with the current population, there won’t be enough high school graduates in five years to match admission quotas at universities.
A college education, fundamentally, is an issue of choice. It is appropriate to expand student loans, provide lower interest and increase scholarships based on the condition that the choice will contribute to society.
But the reality that just about everyone goes to college cannot be a justification to make college education a part of universal welfare. There are too many other urgent welfare needs, and the reality of college education in our country today has already gone off the rail.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Park Tae-wook