[Editorial] University system crisis

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[Editorial] University system crisis

The rumored closing of universities outside of Seoul in tandem with the so-called "cherry blossom ending" turned out to be true. In the additional college admissions by the Feb. 28 deadline, 60 universities could not fill their quota for freshmen. A whopping 80 percent of them were located in other regions than the Seoul metropolitan area. A private university in North Gyeongsang was prepared for 633 freshmen, but only 74 students applied. Another private university in North Jeolla admitted only 157 students out of its additional quota for 416.

In the regular admissions in January, no student applied for 26 departments at 14 local universities. In a recent survey, 46.9 percent of four-year university presidents said that 20 to 40 local universities will shut down in 10 years whereas 23.4 percent expected 40 to 60 universities to close and 15.3 percent anticipated the number to exceed 60.

Our freshman quota is 470,000, but actual applicants are expected to decrease to 370,000 next year from 420,000 this year. The number of 19-year-olds in Korea is expected to dwindle to 230,000 in 20 years. If 44 percent of them are to enter college as the OECD average suggests, there will be 100,000 freshmen in 2043. That means that 70 percent to 80 percent of Korean universities can close.

In the 1970s when 1 million babies were born each year, universities had no problem drawing students when they reached 19. But the situation started to worsen after a countless number of colleges were founded thanks to the eased requirements for establishing colleges from 1996. Education experts have strongly demanded a massive college restructuring since the mid-2000s, but past administrations sat on their hands. They were particularly stingy in forcing out some substandard universities, while others survived on tuitions only.

The crisis is expanding to relatively good universities. A sharp reduction of students will certainly shake the financial integrity of those private universities heavily relying on tuitions and critically hurt their education and research competitiveness. It could lead to the collapse of our higher education system.

A fundamental solution is to cut the number of freshmen. The government must help local universities to consolidate departments or change into welfare institutions or medical facilities. The government must devise effective measures to help local colleges stay afloat given their crucial roles in sustaining local economy.

The National Assembly must start discussions on a bill aimed at helping a restructuring of private universities. The move went nowhere due to a conflict of interest among stakeholders, including politicians, in the past. But lawmakers cannot delay it any longer.
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