As standards decrease, gov’t aims to cut schools
In one of those buildings, only four first-year students were attending a lecture meant for 60 students.
A second building, meanwhile, sits unfinished and exposed. Its construction came to a halt 20 years ago as a result of financial problems. It was supposed to stand as a student union, though nothing has been done to it since.
Seonam University has been cited several times by education officials as one of the higher education institutions that was dealt a serious blow after its founder, Lee Hong-ha, was convicted of embezzling 90.9 billion won ($85.5 million) of the school’s funds last June for personal gain. The educator, who also founded five other universities, was sentenced to nine years in prison. The president of Seonam University also received a three-year prison term with a four-year suspension.
Because of Lee’s ethical violations, the school has suffered severe financial setbacks - to the extent that it does not even have a library. The lack of proper funding has ultimately led to its noticeable underperformance and bad reputation, exacerbated by a decline in student enrollment.
The school aimed to recruit 644 freshmen this year, but it ended up with just less than a third of that, and nearly 200 professors and faculty members have not been paid for the past six months.
“If the crisis-like situation involving Seonam University continues with no sweeping change, everyone related to the school including the students, professors and local residents will suffer more. I just hope the government will quickly decide whether it will revive the school or shut it down,” said a 23-year-old Seonam student surnamed Lee.
Cases like Seonam University illustrate precisely why the government is pushing to shrink the number of underperforming higher education institutions across the country.
By 2023, it aims to reduce the number of college and university students by 160,000 from the 3.7 million recorded last year. With the government drive under way, calls for shutting down poorly managed institutions like Seonam University have steadily begun to increase.
The official data, meanwhile, only underscores the need for Korea’s higher education system to be reined in.
Over a four-decade period, the number of universities and two-year schools has increased from 168 in 1970 to 433 as of last year. Between 1997 and 2011, 63 new schools were set up thanks to a policy created under the Kim Young-sam administration that makes it easier to establish institutions for higher learning. The number of students also skyrocketed, reaching 3.7 million in 2013 from 200,000 in 1970 - an 18-fold increase.
But the high number of colleges and universities has also led to many being poorly managed.
After conducting a special audit into academic performance and school management, the government pinpointed 35 universities that were underperforming and withdrew financial subsidies from those institutions last year. Seonam University and three other schools founded by Lee were among the disgraced schools.
The government’s finding that there will soon be more seats available in higher learning institutions than high school graduates also propelled authorities to rein in the nation’s inflated school network.
The government estimates that enrollment at colleges and universities will plummet by 40 percent over the next 12 years, primarily the result of the declining birthrate.
“Because the current university structure is abnormally big, the government should take quick action in forcing schools mired in problems to close,” said Hong Seoung-yong, the president of Duksung Women’s University, who served as a director on the university structure reform committee at the Ministry of Education. “The government also should provide schools willing to close with an exit plan that will prompt them to voluntarily close.”
The dire job market has also left many recent graduates struggling to find work, which begs the question whether Korea needs so many colleges and universities.
According to the Education Ministry, 64 percent of people in Korea between the ages of 25 and 34 had completed higher education as of 2011, the highest among 34 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). That figure far exceeds that of Britain, at 47 percent, France and the United States, both at 43 percent, and Germany, at 28 percent.
But despite such a high margin, the employment rate among graduates ranks near the bottom among the 34 nations in the OECD at 75 percent, behind Chile (76 percent) and Mexico (78 percent).
“Since the job market is swarmed with degree holders, a college diploma doesn’t mean anything here,” said a 28-year-old job seeker surnamed Park, who has been hunting for a job for more than a year since he graduated from a local college outside of Seoul with a degree in industrial design.
He pointed out that because virtually every university has standardized its curriculum regardless of location, with no specialized programs, graduates from local colleges are at a major disadvantage in the job market compared to graduates from universities in Seoul.
His concern was also reflected in a remark made by President Park Geun-hye last month during a Blue House meeting with officials from the Education Ministry, in which she stated that “only 29 percent of high school graduates in Switzerland go on to study at university. And yet, it has topped the world competitiveness index for five years in a row.”
She added, “We need to form a society that emphasizes one’s abilities, not the name of the university one attended.”
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