The author is a professor of economics at Korea University.
Graduation season in May in colleges and universities in the United States is bleak. With an increase of unemployment by 38.6 million in the past two months, graduates are worried about finding a job. Some employers cancelled or postponed job offers. Students are struggling to find summer internships and jobs. The fall semester in September is not likely to be a normal school year. Many universities announced that they would continue with remote learning for now. Students complain about online lectures and demand partial refunds on their tuitions. They also protest that schools did not reflect student opinion as they made the important decision to temporarily close and change how lectures are given. The government increased fiscal spending, but they are furious that little help came for college education and struggling students.
Colleges around the world are in chaos in the aftermath of Covid-19. Sudden transition to remote lectures caused troubles. Contactless video lectures are criticized when compared to face-to-face classes where professors and students communicate in a classroom. It can be compared to going to a live concert versus listening to a recording. In-person lectures and lab experiences are essential for engineering and medical schools. According to the New York Times, 75 percent of 14,000 college students in the United States responded that remote education was not as good as in-person learning. College students in Korea also complain about video lectures.
It is not easy for students and professors to adapt to the new way of learning, but with Covid-19, changes in the educational scene will accelerate. Some prefer remote learning as it eliminates commute and recorded lectures can be replayed. Another perk is the ability to view quality lectures by renowned scholars at other schools, without any limitations of time and space. Various educational methods supplementing online remote learning will be available. Students in Korea can attend classes at top schools in the United States, Europe, Japan and China and receive diplomas. The gap between quality schools and substandard schools will grow, and many schools may fall behind. In Korea, the number of high school graduates will continue to decrease, and it won’t be easy to maintain the number of foreign students, which was 160,000 last year. Poorly managed schools among 430 colleges and universities will gradually close.
Covid-19 changed school life and made finding a job harder, and the question of why college education is needed is growing. Colleges take up the valuable time of young people and charge high tuition, but it is doubtful they produce graduates equipped with the knowledge and skills that society wants. The Economist Intelligence Unit, a research division of the Economist Group, conducted a global survey, and 66 percent of businesses and 56 percent of college students responded that colleges do not properly teach the knowledge and skills needed at work. In the era of information, communication technology and artificial intelligence, people don’t learn the problem-solving skills, critical thinking, creativity, ability to work together and communicate and digital skills at colleges.
Colleges and universities engage in research investigating truth and contribute to academic and social development. They nurture future leaders. These are all valuable qualities, but college students need to be ready to find employment upon graduation. Youth unemployment is a global problem, but unemployment of college graduates is especially serious in Korea. According to statistics by the Ministry of Education, one third of the 514,000 college graduates in 2018 did not find a job by the end of the year. This year, the economic slowdown as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak would make it even harder to find a job.
As the government offers more protections to existing workers, new graduates will find it even harder to get a job. The Korea Development Institute found that employment of three workers between age 55 and 60 due to extended retirement age results in one less youth position for those between the age 15 and 29. Retirement age extension is necessary in preparation for aging population, but policies to support youth employment should accompany those efforts.
In order for Korean colleges to survive after Covid-19, they need to engage in educational reform to enhance competitiveness and fairness and to nurture talent society demand. Schools need to voluntarily revamp curriculum and learning methods and enhance convergence education, industry partnership and lifelong education to teach the knowledge and skills needed in the fourth industrial revolution era. Quality of education and research should be improved through enhanced partnership with renowned universities around the world. Chances for overseas education and training should be expanded, and programs for foreign students need to be improved.
Government and society also need to make dramatic investment in colleges and universities. Schools should continue to secure the latest facilities and outstanding faculty. Tuition freezing for the last 12 years increased financial pressure. Tuition should be made realistic, while scholarships and grants need to be expanded. Funding should be increased, and schools should be allowed to autonomously execute budgets while those failing to provide quality education need to be weeded out. The government should make quality job opportunities in the private sector for college graduates in addition to public positions. Service industries and future high-tech industries with high added value should be nurtured, and rigidity in the labor market needs to be lowered.
Young people in Korea are struggling with college admission and employment competition and look forward to an unstable future. Colleges and society need to help them gain essential knowledge and skills and begin life with a job of their choice. The future of Korea depends on education and training of the young people.