A long way to go
A mother in Busan sends her son to a university in Seoul. Because there are not enough dorm rooms for students, her son has to rent a studio, with a 10 million won ($8,900) deposit and 500,000 won per month. Aside from the college tuition, she sends an extra 700,000 won a month as an allowance. But her son has to work at a part-time job because the money he gets from home is not enough. Grades are on a curve, so students compete against one another. Because he spends time working, he cannot focus on studying, and he is not likely to merit a scholarship. “When you send your child to Seoul from other regions, the family becomes instantly poor,” the mother says.
But going to college in Seoul doesn’t mean the future of the student is bright. Many families cannot afford both tuition and living costs, so they often take out student loans. Students have debt before they enter into the society. Even if they are fortunate enough to find a job in Seoul, they can barely afford rent and transportation after paying back the loan. They cannot dream of buying their own home without the help of parents, so getting married and settling down is no easy feat. Both the children in Seoul and the families in their hometown could fall into the vicious cycle of poverty.
Until the 1980s, outstanding students in other regions often chose nearby national universities, where living costs would be considerably less. However, aside from some regions with major corporate production bases, jobs have disappeared outside of the capital. Companies are concentrated in Seoul and prefer local graduates. So the competition to get into “in Seoul” colleges and universities has expanded. Parents and students increasingly obsess over university rankings, starting from the top three Seoul-Korea-Yonsei circles.
In order to alleviate the financial burden for parents sending their children to Seoul, the competitiveness of local universities must be enhanced. National universities need to offer specialized programs rather than a general array of majors and departments. By integrating local universities or linking them in a network, they should be transformed into channels of outstanding talent on par with top private universities in Seoul.
The trend of avoiding regional universities is linked to the retirement of the baby boomers and low fertility rates. Middle-aged parents in non-Seoul areas have a hard time preparing for their retirement because they have to support their children’s living expenses in Seoul. While the children struggle to pay for housing and living, they cannot ask for their parents’ help, postponing marriage and have less children.
Relieving the concentration on the capital region and reviving other regions cannot be attained by relocating the administrative capital or headquarters of public corporations. The authorities need to begin considering university reform and the employment issue together.
*The author is a deputy national news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 13, Page 30
BY KIM SUNG-TAK