Drastic college reforms neededThe Ministry of Education is considering whether to order a sweeping restructuring of higher education by cutting enrollment quotas at all universities. With the ultimate goal of reducing the total enrollment quota by 160,000 over the next decade, universities would be grouped into three categories and be limited in the number of high school graduates they can accept. The top-group universities will get government funding if they reduce their freshman quota; the second group will get no government subsidies; and the bottom group will be advised to close, according to a set of recommendations compiled by a private research team at the request of the ministry.
The incremental quota cuts could pre-empt a collective breakdown at universities. Korean universities and colleges are in crisis because of the coming sharp reduction of high school graduate numbers beginning in 2018, serious financial trouble amid political encouragement to drastically cut tuition fees, and a thinning job market for graduates. In 2023, high school graduates will number 400,000. If the ratio of high school graduates going on to college continues to stay at 70 percent, only 280,000 will apply and enter universities in that year, a number just half of the 560,000 seats currently available at local universities and colleges. If the government idly sits back, universities will run into serious management problems and will have to shut down en masse as in Japan. The collapse of universities will hurt local economies and a reduced number of students will dampen educational investments, ultimately undermining higher education standards.
But the latest research is primarily on cutting numbers through a cut in government financial support. That alone won’t work. The recommendations also asked competitive universities to reduce quotas using the leverage of government support. Also, the government can do little if underperforming universities insist on educating new students even without government funding.
Reforms depend on speed and efficiency. The ministry should not rely on promises by universities that they will restructure. A surgeon sometimes needs to carve out an infected area in order to protect other body parts from contamination. The ministry should push existing restructuring measures and add stronger ones to accelerate reform in universities. It must send a consistent message that underperforming universities will be denied scholarship aid and ranked by management effectiveness. The government must act sternly to reform the higher education system.