A waste for the nation

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A waste for the nation

Yeom Jae-ho
The author is an emeritus professor of Korea University and former president of Korea University.


Seoul citizens go to the polls to elect a new mayor in two weeks. The by-election to fill up the vacancy left by Park Won-soon whose longest term as administrator of the capital ended with a sexual harassment scandal will set the grounds for next year’s presidential elections. The ruling Democratic Party (DP) is going all-out to extend its governing power, while the opposition People Power Party (PPP) is highlighting the poor achievements of the DP to call upon voters to make their judgment.

But Seoul city affairs should differ from state affairs. Political parties must not regard mayoral or gubernatorial posts as a stepping stone for governing power or presidency. Candidates should vow they will not run for presidency for a certain period after they step down to show their commitment to the post they are running for.

There are few visions on bolstering competitiveness and living standards in the capital from candidates from rivaling parties. They contest with real estate and sexual scandals, recklessly promise allowances and subsidies to woo voters or resort to mudslinging. There are no deep thoughts on ways to improve the livelihood of Seoul citizens.

A local government election should be based on improving lives in the present and future, instead of on issues of ideology or aligned parties. The mayor of Seoul should be someone who understands citizens in the capital and endeavors to raise their living standards. They need to come up with a customized strategy for voters instead of parading through marketplaces or campaigning in front of subway stations. Former mayor Park first won his title with about 2 million votes 10 years ago. But there were no platforms for university students in Seoul, who number minimum 1 million.

There are 43 four-year universities, 10 shorter-year colleges, 10 online-focused universities and four vocational or special profession-training colleges in Seoul. There are more than 20 subway stops bearing the names of universities in Seoul. There is no other city in the world with such a concentration of higher education.

A university is the center of intelligence, and knowledge feeds future national competitiveness. Governments around the world invest incessantly on universities and students.

In Europe, most get through undergraduate courses on state subsidies and college students have free access to arts galleries or museums as well as discounts on transportation. In Korea, university students are regarded as general adults subject to the same fees and dues as adult citizens. It is a pity that the Seoul government lacks interest and support for university students and employment of universities for knowledge-related industries.

According to a survey by Albamon, an online platform for part-time job hiring, and Shinhan Bank, a university student needs 300,000 won ($270) a month for an allowance or 600,000 won for living expense including housing. The college tuition burden has greatly eased due to the state-enforced freeze on tuition raises and increased public scholarships for students from low-income families.

But the survey shows many students struggle to pay for housing that costs over 300,000 won a month and 100,000 won in transportation fares that take up a third of their monthly budget. Many must take up part-time jobs at shops and delivery or chauffeuring gigs during school years or hard-labor jobs during the break to earn their allowance.

This is a waste for the nation.

District authorities don’t want to allow universities to increase the amount of cheap housing for students because of lobbying by housing companies. Subway fares are discounted only until high school. Some could say cutting subway fares for university students is a populistic idea. But it should be regarded as an investment in the future.

Of this year’s budget of 558 trillion won, 200 trillion won goes to health, welfare and employment. There has been an idea of handing out 100,000 won to every citizen, but a spending 500 billion won a year would be enough to subsidize the cut in subway fares for university students. Students would be less pressured to take on part-time gigs to earn some allowance and the city would gain a reputation of caring for the future generation.

Fairness matters more than ideology to university students these days. They questioned the fairness when the government proposed uniting the North Korean and South Korean ice hockey teams to allow North Korean athletes to compete at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. They strongly protested when Incheon International Airport converted irregular security guards to permanent jobs and raged over the favoritism allegations associated with the children of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk. They are outraged over employees of the state housing authority seeking profit from land purchases through inside information. They are also cynical about student bodies or civilian activist groups for chasing political or selfish interests. They have no interest in the politicking activities of the student bodies.

Politics must provide a vision for the future. The vision must not be of a certain ideology or thought, but on improving livelihoods. Politicians must have care of the dreams of future generations as much as present welfare. University students are eligible to vote. Seoul can turn in to a vibrant, young and internationally competitive city when they take an interest in the vote that can influence their lives.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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