[Viewpoint] Calmer heads need to prevailPresident Lee Myung-bak visited Korea University, his alma mater, soon after he took office. The university, once dubbed the epicenter of student protests, is also famous for a rebellious character among alumni. We were curious about the response from students to their conservative alumni.
The mood was surprisingly welcoming. Banners criticizing the government and its policies were scarce. But one poster stood out. It read: “MB [the president’s initials], we demand lower tuition, not an increased student loan burden!”
The simple and direct words hit the nail on the head with the government’s approach to dealing with student hardship due to annual increases in college tuition fees. The government unveiled a new student loan program that allowed loans to be repaid in installments after students find jobs and start earning income. The president proclaimed an end to worries about tuition fees.
But loans carrying high interest rates were hardly appealing to students. Students also shunned the program because by borrowing money, they would be excluded from free scholarships, as well as lower interest rate loans available to students of low-income families.
Three years have passed since the government had declared an end to tuition worries. Today, college tuition costs have become a major issue, sending the government as well as politicians scrambling to find a solution, while student anger and protests mount. Where has the government been while the problem snowballed to such a crisis level? Newly elected Grand National Party floor leader Hwang Woo-yea suggested the ruling party would campaign on halving tuition costs from their current levels. Expensive college costs and student protests against annual hikes have been controversial for a long time. But the government and ruling party are both in a dither, as if the problem suddenly fell from the sky.
The political parties’ impromptu and expedient problem-solving approach - pledging to shave tuition costs by up to half - is as pitiful as the government’s ineptitude. They demonstrate the immaturity, recklessness and shortsightedness of Korean politics.
The ruling party is most pathetic. Members are all praise for the new floor leader for pressuring the government with a radical tuition cut idea even though it had not been thoroughly studied.
The reformist new floor leader proved too hasty and inexperienced by blurting out his personal opinion without realizing the explosive consequence. As a representative of the ruling party, he should have spoken out only after the problem was fully examined from the view of fiscal affordability and in the broad context of welfare and education policies. He should have waited until there was government-party consultation and a final action plan.
From the apparent disarray in the ruling party and government, it appears no such process has taken place. He only ended up setting a fire, making a cool judgment difficult.
The opposition party is fully capitalizing on a chance to attack the government. Members rushed to scenes of candlelight vigils in support of protesting students. In order to differentiate itself from the ruling party, it went more extreme, demanding tuition subsidies to students from lower-income families as early as the fall term instead of by 2013.
The idea of subsidizing half of students’ tuition fees is radical, but nevertheless would serve merely as a makeshift move to solve the problem in the long run.
The opposition failed to address how it plans to deal with money-losing colleges, unemployment after graduation and fairness for the those without a college degree. If Democratic Party head Sohn Hak-kyu instead urged the students to leave the tuition problem up to his party and return to their studies, he may have gotten sneers at the scene, but broader support from the public for mature leadership.
The president, meanwhile, must recall his initial pledge to students, promising an end to their tuition agony. He should provide an easing of the problem if not a way out. Both the ruling and opposition parties should join together to come up with a solution with a farsighted educational perspective. A populism competition will only do the country and its students harm.
Alongside the tuition problem is an overflow of college graduates and inequality for those who do not have 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 been closed.
Lee can still revive the status and reputation of vocational schools so students do not have to rush to expensive colleges for a future without job security.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Heo Nam-chin