[Viewpoint] We need ‘invisible hands’

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[Viewpoint] We need ‘invisible hands’

I often think of my deceased parents these days. With eight siblings, their worries deepened every new school year. Fortunately, I became less of a burden because I attended a national university. The yearly tuition at a state university equaled the cost of half a term at a private high school.

But it was a different case with my sisters who attended private universities. My parents had to sell their pigs in order to raise money to meet each term’s tuition. At the end, they had to take out a loan to help them finish college.

Our childhood days were in a poorer era. Many of my peers were sent home from school weeping because they couldn’t afford the tuition. Many had to give up their education. It is a painful past to recall.

My generation finished schooling in times of great need. Our country today is one of the richest, but parents and students are nonetheless burdened by the cost of education.

I was able to hear about the hard times college students are undergoing today from an acquaintance who was a professor at a local university. He said more than half of his students work part-time at convenience stores or restaurants to pay for their education.

Too tired and busy to concentrate on their studies, they naturally get poor grades and cannot build up foreign language or other skills to broaden and build their resumes to get jobs. They are disadvantaged compared to their peers who have parents who can more easily afford their education.

Our society should no longer let students lose their aspirations to study and follow their dreams because of hard financial circumstances. We have built enough wealth to support students either through affordable tuition or scholarship programs. Universities should be initially responsible because they know their students best. If they really cared for their pain and suffering, the controversy over tuition fees may not have culminated into today’s crisis.

The current crisis made me turn my attention to freedom and responsibility in society. Starting in the Roh Tae-woo administration, universities were given the liberty to adjust student quotas, or the number of students they admitted. New schools mushroomed while existing colleges expanded their student bodies.

Tuitions are their primary source of income, and the more students the more the revenue. Freedom turned into means of profit-making. School foundations concentrated on expanding their revenues and became negligent in their public obligation to educate and generate talent for society.

The problem is not limited to higher education. All of our social problems derive from engrossment with self-interests.

You see it everywhere. Large companies have to make enough profit to invest in technology and facilities to compete in the global market. To invest, they must shave costs from their subcontractors and suppliers. The lower-end of the chain has to shave workers’ pay to survive. Workers have to resort to extreme measures to demand their rights.

From each perspective, no one is wrong. But from an outsider’s view, everyone is acting selfishly and creating imbalances and conflict - all destructive and not at all reasonable. The government must supervise and mediate. Yet there is a rumor that universities spent large sums to lobby for increases in student quotas.

Universities profited and education bureaucrats and politicians got richer. The savings bank crisis can also be blamed on corruption within regulatory authorities. The tuition crisis, despite the excuses from university foundations, faculty and bureaucrats, only ended up hurting the students.

It is all well that democracy and freedom have flourished so much in this society.

But if they come at the expense of sacrifices from the weak, society is only headed for self-destruction. Our society is in want of “invisible hands.” Even as individuals pursue their self-interests, they must be in tune with the broader social current to ensure order and stability for the nation. We must forsake self-interest a little to consider the common interests of our community.

In the authoritarian period, we were more considerate of the public interest. We are a democratic republic where public harmony is as important as upholding democracy. We must value sense of community and civility. Civilians must do their responsible part and civil servants should uphold the dignity of their public roles.

The solution to the tuition problem is burden-sharing. The sufferings of young students should not be capitalized on as a means to win votes.

Universities must save costs to ease tuitions, companies should offer bigger scholarships, and the government needs to close down weak universities and replace them with vocational schools so that civilians can make a fair living without the pressure to get a college degree.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Moon Chang-keuk
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