The long freeze on college tuition backfired

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The long freeze on college tuition backfired

The University of Seoul, the first to halve tuition fees, has formed a committee to discuss raising it. The move suggests the city-subsidized university can no longer endure cheap tuition. The half-cut tuition was a campaign promise by former Seoul mayor Park Won-soon in 2011. But the cut has worsened the university’s financial health and education standards. Students even protested when Park proposed to make the tuition free of charge in 2016.

The campaign to freeze university tuition started in 2009 amid universities’ competitive hikes and their negligent management. College tuition has stayed frozen since 2009. But the consumer price index rose from 83.9 in 2009 to 107.7 in 2022 (with the 2020 level as reference of 100). If adjusted with inflation, tuition should have risen 28.4 percent to be “strictly frozen.” But most universities could not raise it for fear of government censure.

The side effects are grave. A national university in North Gyeongsang with an annual budget of 100 billion won ($75.8 million) can spend just 5 percent of it on education, research and lectures that define education standards, as fixed expenditures make up a whopping 70 percent, compared to 30 percent 10 years ago, due to the increase in labor and other costs. A four-year university in North Jeolla had to cut the budget to subscribe to online journals by half.

An unrealistic tuition freeze only weakens the quality of university education. Universities cannot afford to renovate old buildings or purchase the latest equipment to raise education standards because of the 15-year freeze in tuition and reduced enrollment. The government subsidy also has not increased. As a result, the ratio of the budget for higher education (excluding scholarships) against the total education budget fell to 9.6 percent in 2020 from 10.8 percent in 2011.

University competitiveness has worsened as a result. According to World Competitiveness Ranking by Switzerland-based International Institute for Management Development, Korea ranks 46th among 63 countries in university competitiveness. Although Korea excels in IT, chips and other advanced industry, universities responsible for supplying talent for the field far lags behind. Developed countries all invest heavily in higher education in tandem with industrial advances. Korea is going backward.

It is time to rationalize university tuition. Of 193 four-year universities, 17 have chosen to raise tuition fees even if they invite government penalties. In a survey of presidents of four-year universities in January, nearly half, or 49.1 percent, said their schools are considering raising tuition either this year or the next. The Yoo Suk Yeol administration, which cites education as one of three major reform agendas, must rationalize regulations on tuition with a future-oriented vision for higher education.
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