Cherry blossom endingCHUN IN-SUNG
The author is the head of the social planning teamof the JoongAng Ilbo.
About ten years ago, I heard that colleges were shutting down in the order that cherry blossom blooms — starting with those farthest from Seoul. I was impressed by the rhetoric summing up the crisis of local colleges due to the concentration in the capital region, but I didn’t believe it would actually happen.
The warning that the low birth rate and decreasing number of students would lead to a crisis for colleges was already repeated. As the government and schools knew about the upcoming danger, I thought it would be resolved somehow.
But my prediction was wrong. This year’s admissions outcome shows that the “cherry blossom ending” has already begun for regional universities. Most colleges in the non-capital region failed to fill seats. The Far East University in North Chungcheong, Andong University in North Gyeongsang, Wonkwang University in North Jeolla and Sangji University in Gangwon failed to fill two or three out of everyt ten seats for the incoming class. As private universities have few sources of income other than tuition, they are concerned about bankrupcy.
Solutions were presented early on. Kim Yong-ik, head of the committee on aging and future society, proposed in a seminar for the Ministry of Education in 2005 that intense structural reform for colleges, including weeding out uncompetitive schools, was needed.
The primary responsibility is with the Education Ministry. In 2014, the ministry started a structural reform, removing 160,000 college places over nine years. The plan faltered. The one-sided college evaluation and unsystematic seat reduction plan was not trusted. As unreliable colleges were not weeded out, more “zombie” schools were created, barely surviving through tuition and subsidiaries.
Colleges and universities cannot avoid responsibility either. While they claim to be the cradle of knowledge and intelligence, they try to please the ministry and seek government assistance.
The biggest responsibility for failing to prevent the crisis lies with politicians who calculate factional interests and have been indifferent to the crisis. The revision to the Private Schools Act, the legal base for restructuring and weeding out underperforming schools, never got through the National Assembly. For each election season, promises were made to expand college funding, but after elections, both the winner and the loser became indifferent.
An approaching danger that is neglected and results in irreversible damage is compared to a “gray rhino.” It is easy to spot it from far, but it’s hard to avoid it when it nears. Gray rhinos like exhausting the national pension, the college admissions crisis and the increasing national debt and climate catastrophes are approaching. We need the wisdom, courage and determination to dodge the charging rhinos.