Open mouth, insert foot

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Open mouth, insert foot

Kim Sung-tak

The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

In a press interview, Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min said the government hopes to encourage three to five large companies, elite universities and high schools to move out of the capital area during the Yoon Suk-yeol presidency. He encouraged the top schools — Seoul National University, Yonsei University, Korea University, and Sogang University — to take the lead. Schooling should be provided to young people to help them work in local provinces, he explained.

More than half of the South Korean population live around the capital. The country’s top companies are also headquartered in Seoul and their key manufacturing facilities are around the capital. Except for some medical, dental, and pharmaceutical departments, college aspirants prefer universities in or around Seoul. Once they leave their hometown, they do not return home. Understandably, a government minister responsible for balanced growth of the country must seek a solution to the problem.

But universities and high schools question the feasibility of the idea given the minister’s naivety about the realities of Korean universities, its college entrance system, special purpose high schools and corporate locations.

A professor at a national university in a local province laughed at the idea, as elite universities would gain little from leaving Seoul. When one university moved its campus from Seoul to Gyeonggi, the standard of its applicants went down. As elite schools based in Seoul have histories of over a century, they would hardly agree to any change of their status quo.

Minister Lee said the government could offer radical incentives such as allowing the universities full freedom to develop the land on their campus outside Seoul for profit. But under the education law, a private educational institution must use profit solely for educational purposes. Any extra profit will be used to cover their relocation costs. Since students can protest, top universities can consider the idea of setting up chip- or AI-focused campuses in regional areas instead of moving the entire school. But Korea University and Yonsei University already have a local campus in Cheonan, South Chungcheon, and Wonju, Gangwon, respectively.

If the top schools add campuses in regional areas, they would only weaken provincial universities by fueling competition. National universities in provincial areas have been grooming special fields, but they cannot even fill their seats.

Lee’s idea of relocating special-purpose high schools to provincial areas is also unrealistic. Currently, there are over 100 special-purpose and autonomous high schools across the country, but nearly 30 percent of them are under-enrolled.

Large companies do not just consider excellent manpower for their locations. Chipmakers stay near the capital and air gateway, as logistics are important. Large companies, research centers, and public institutions must all move out to create jobs in regional areas. The minister must take into account the tough challenge for regional balance before making public his views.

Lee’s vision was not part of the state agenda. He did not discuss it with the Ministry of Education, either. The chair to the Presidential Committee for Balanced National Development was appointed just a week ago. Lee spoke of a policy that has not been discussed with the government or based on any type of deep study. The new government lost its first education minister over her half-baked idea of lowering the school starting age to five. It is no wonder the new government has such unusually low approval ratings.
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