A weird discrepancy for education subsidies

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A weird discrepancy for education subsidies

According to the latest data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the gap between Korea’s government annual spending on universities and primary, middle and high schools has widened. Public funding per university student was $11,287, falling far below the OECD average of $17,559 and a decline from the previous year. But public funding per elementary student was $13,341, up 6 percent on year, while that on middle and high schoolers rose 14 percent to $17,078. The spending was much higher than the respective OECD averages of $9,923 and $11,400.

Korea was the sole OECD member whose public funding for college education was smaller than the amount for elementary education. In 1998, public funding for a university student averaged $6,365, more than doubling $2,838 going to each elementary school student. But from 2014, spending for elementary education became higher than that for college education. While investment to tertiary education stayed stagnant, the budget for primary and secondary education increased annually as it is fixed to 20.79 percent of tax revenue.

Subsidies to local education offices was institutionalized in 1972 to catch up with the surge in students since the baby boom. Education subsidies became fixed against tax revenue. The grant increased in line with growth in tax revenue.

But the number of students has been thinning due to the low birth rate. Students in elementary and secondary schools fell to 5.32 million this year from 6.57 million in 2013. And yet, education subsidies doubled to 81 trillion won ($56 billion) from 41 trillion won during the period.

Education offices supervising elementary and secondary schools are overbudgeted. Some offices gave out laptops, tablet PCs and Covid-19 relief funds during the pandemic. Still, 17 city and provincial education offices are estimated to be 20 trillion won in surplus this year.

In the meantime, tertiary education environment has been worsening due to a lack of funds. Aged buildings in need of examination averaged 6.4 per national university in 2020, increasing from 4.7 in 2018. The government proposes to share the excess education subsidies with universities. But the bill faces an obstacle in the National Assembly due to the opposition by the majority Democratic Party and progressive teachers’ union to the idea.

But it is a waste to leave the subsidy system unattended. The budget management must be rationalized so that spending can go where it is more needed. The goal of education should not be any different for the elementary or higher education. Politicians and the education sector must improve the sclerotic subsidy program.
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