[Viewpoint] Easing tuition agonyPresident Lee Myung-bak visited his alma mater, Korea University, soon after he took office. The university, once an epicenter of student protests, has been famous for its generally rebellious reputation and strong bonds among its alumni.
We were curious about the students’ response to their conservative alumnus. The mood was surprisingly welcoming. Banners criticizing the government and its policies were scarce. But one poster stood out. It read: “MB, we demanded lower tuition, not an increase in the burden of student loans!”
That simple and direct message hit the bull’s-eye of the government’s approach to the crisis of rising college tuitions. The government announced a new student loan program that allowed young people to repay in installments after they found jobs and started earning income. The president proclaimed an end to worries about tuitions.
But the loans, which carried high interest rates and upped the risk of producing a generation of loan defaulters, weren’t appealing to students. Students also shunned the program because by borrowing, they would be disqualified for some scholarships as well as for the more benign 1 percent to 1.5 percent loans available to students from low-income families
Three years have passed since the government declared an end to tuition worries. Today, rising college costs have become a major hot potato, sending the government as well as politicians stumbling to find a solution while student anger and protests mount. Where has the government been as the problem snowballed into such a crisis?
Newly elected Grand National Party floor leader Hwang Woo-yea suggested that the ruling party would campaign for halving tuition costs. High tuitions and student protests against annual hikes have been controversial for a long time. But the government and ruling party are both in a tizzy as if the problem suddenly fell from the sky.
The political parties’ impromptu and reckless approach - pledging to shave tuitions by half - is as pitiful as the government’s ineptitude. They demonstrate the immaturity and shortsightedness of Korean politics. The ruling party is most pathetic. Members have nothing but praises for their new floor leader for pressuring the government for a radical tuition cut proposal even though it hasn’t been thoroughly studied by anyone with real authority.
Hwang, the reformist new floor leader, proved himself a hasty and inexperienced leader by blurting out a personal opinion on the issue without anticipating the explosive consequences. As the representative of the ruling party whose job is to iron out differences in the legislature, he should have spoken only after the problem was fully examined from the view of fiscal affordability and in the broader context of welfare and education policies. He should have waited for government-party consultations and a final action plan.
From the scenes of disarray in the ruling party and the government, it appears no such process has taken place. Hwang ended up throwing a bomb, making a levelheaded deliberation process impossible.
The opposition party is fully capitalizing on the opportunity to attack the government. Members rushed to candlelight vigils being held by protesting students. In order to differentiate itself from the ruling party, it went even more extreme, demanding tuition subsidies for students from families earning below the median income as early as the fall term instead of the earlier 2013 proposal.
The idea of subsidizing half of students’ tuitions is radical and would only be a makeshift solution to the greater problem. The opposition failed to address how it planned to deal with money-losing colleges, unemployment after graduation, and fairness for the young who don’t earn college degrees. If Democratic Party head Sohn Hak-kyu had urged the students to leave the tuition problem up to his party and return to their studies, he might have gotten sneers at the candlelight vigils but broader support from the public for demonstrating mature leadership.
The president, meanwhile, must recall his pledge to students promising an end to tuition agony. He should provide an easing of their burden if not an absolute solution. Both ruling and opposition parties should come up with a joint solution with a farsighted perspective. A race to come up with purely populist solutions will only do the country and students harm.
And what about the plight of the young people who don’t have college degrees? Vocational high schools are now shunned despite having produced three presidents - Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak. Their schools have all been shut down. President Lee can revive the status and reputation of vocational high schools so that students who can’t afford expensive colleges will have a future with job security.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Heo Nam-chin