[Viewpoint] Fish rot from the head down

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[Viewpoint] Fish rot from the head down

My wife has been an instructor at several colleges for ten years, and she sometimes talks about her students. “I never let my guard down when teaching at Seoul National University, but only about half the students at the University of Incheon seem to follow my lectures,” she said.

She told me that the level of students at a newly established private university outside Seoul was surprisingly poor. One of her colleagues found it impossible to conduct a college-level English 101 class, so she began teaching English grammar at a seventh grade level.

It’s truly unfortunate that students pay high tuitions and end up spending a fruitless four years. But our politicians are eager to ensure that the students at even these substandard schools be given big breaks in their tuitions.

Seoul Metro is a stable public corporation and an attractive employer, and most of its job applicants are graduates from prestigious universities with great grades. But once they are hired, they are given the basic task of selling tickets at subway stations.

Obviously, those young people are not going to feel content or rewarded. It’s both a personal tragedy and a national catastrophe, a weird distortion of the distribution of resources.

A former Seoul Metro president said, “It may attract criticism, but Seoul Metro needs to introduce a reverse academic requirement of hiring only high school graduates for certain positions.”

Instead of cutting college tuitions, the government and companies should change their recruiting systems.

Last year, Samsung Group promised to hire more graduates of vocational high schools. Two students from Silla Technical High School in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang, were hired by Samsung. The school has a strategic partnership with Hyundai Heavy Industries, which recruited four students from Silla.

The opportunity for such good jobs made the admissions process at Silla more competitive. Principal Son Su-hyeok said that the school moved up its application deadline earlier than other schools and encouraged students with lower grades to apply to other schools.

The Industrial Bank of Korea started something new by hiring vocational high school graduates as tellers this year. We welcome public corporations that hire high school graduates before recruiting college graduates.

Looking at our country’s lawmakers, who have been obsessed with cutting tuitions (and garnering votes as a result), I wonder what kind of world they are dreaming of.

Do they want a society in which students can enjoy affordable college educations? How about a society in which you can succeed without a college degree as long as you have certain skills? If politicians think the latter is more ideal, they need to change their direction.

There is so much to be done before making deep tuition cuts. Our nation’s leaders need to first work with companies to create a social atmosphere in which high school graduates can find quality jobs. It is urgent to weed out underperforming colleges and enhance financial transparency. Frankly, the candles at the protest vigils should be carried by students at vocational high schools who are discriminated against in the job market, not the students from fancy colleges.

In early 1933, at the height of the Great Depression in the United States, anger pervaded the entire country. Populism swelled as politicians scrambled to placate furious voters. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was told that if he failed to manage the chaos, he’d be known as “our worst president.” He replied, “If I fail, I’ll be your last president.”

Roosevelt did not face the blind fury of the public directly. He made radio addresses to keep a polite distance from the public. He displayed leadership and relieved the pressure of populism through persistent persuasion. The anger receded.

In contrast, our politicians appear buried in the public’s discontent. With general and presidential elections approaching, they are furiously trying to please the voters. But they’re trying too hard. They emphasize how high Korea’s college tuitions are compared to other countries’ but they fail to point out the unusually high rate of college attendance.

After all, there are only 150,000 jobs in the public sector and among companies that require candidates with college degrees. Every year, colleges and universities produce 600,000 graduates, and if tuition is chopped, it will lead to an obvious result. An inflation of university degrees will occur, and students at vocational high schools will choose to go to college.

Fish rot from the head downward. Politicians dancing to the tune of tuition cuts are more ominous than the student protestors. In the history of politics, populism has mostly been the realm of losers. The nation’s politicians, ruling and opposition alike, seem to be cursed from the head downward. They consider even the most reasonable criticism blasphemy.

Minister of Strategy and Finance Bahk Jae-wan courageously spoke up and said that the government cannot afford half-priced tuitions, as the slogan calls the tuition cuts. The wise course is to keep a distance from the angry public and prepare a thorough and prudent plan as President Roosevelt did.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Chul-ho
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