[Viewpoint] An unprecedented university audit

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[Viewpoint] An unprecedented university audit

The air on university campuses is stale with tension as they face an unprecedented audit by the Board of Audit and Inspection. Yang Kun, the head of the independent state auditor, demanded that universities hand over their tuition accounts.

The goal of the body is to discern whether tuition fees charged by 66 universities across the nation are responsible. Some 400 auditing staff are on the task.

The Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology dispatched 19 support officials. Yang said his team will be communicating closely with university staff. The workload and stress for universities responding to the audit are excruciating. Some complain they are treated as criminal suspects.

I told them auditing is always stressful. But a professor replied, “They have gone too far. They are even demanding citizen registration numbers of my family members to check invoices on research allowances.” Another university administrative staff member grumbled that the auditors were demanding ridiculous material, making their lives a living hell ahead of a new semester and college entrance preparations.

Some universities feel the audits are a disgrace. The political debate on addressing high college tuition fees is what sparked the Board of Audit to embark on the first-ever college tuition audit. University administration offices were not even invaded under past military regimes. Privately-funded universities complain that there are no legal grounds to investigate them. State-funded institutions like Seoul National University can be targeted for government audits, but private universities can only be audited by the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology.

The BOA officials cite the Board of Audit and Inspection articles to defend their investigation. But inspections are ongoing and results would only attest to heavy-handedness by Yang and his agency if universities have nothing to hide.

The universities brought the audit on themselves. Some have been accused of reckless management and overly generous payments for long-term professors and staff. Korean universities notoriously charge too much for tuition.

Tuition fees are the fourth highest among Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development member countries. The university student population has surged 3.64 million from 640,000 in 1980. Tuition fees have multiplied over the years, yet education quality remains lagging. According to the Switzerland-based International Institute for Management Development, no Korean university is ranked within the top 40 in the world. University professors should ask themselves what endeavors they have made to better the quality of higher education.

Stanford University recently posted its first free online course in artificial intelligence taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. More than 120,000 people around the world signed up for the course that begins in the fall. I signed up and in just 10 seconds, a responding e-mail arrived with my registration number as the 83,621st student.

I felt strangely envious. Our university society is devoid of celebrity professors. More imperative than the problem of tuition fees is a poor standard of class education. The value of education cannot be estimated monetarily. We doubt universities are giving students their money’s worth. Even worse, there are few professors who are offering to help out pupils struggling to pay their tuition.

Next week, empty campuses will welcome back students. Yang and his team will be done with their survey by then. The no-nonsense former Hanyang University law professor is well familiar with the realities of university administration and student life. We can’t be sure if he will expose the misdeeds of universities or if he will end up impairing their reputation. But it seems undeniable that he has crossed a line.

There cannot be any excuse for violating the sovereignty of university education. Universities should be scolded for mismanagement. It is embarrassing to wrangle so long over tuition when a single course through the Internet can draw 120,000 pupils eager to learn. Universities must seriously contemplate the essence of the tuition controversy and seek ways to restore their name.

That is the only way to keep government interference at bay.

*The writer is an editor of social affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Yang Young-yu
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