The year 2018 will mark the beginning of a new era in higher education in Korea, as the number of high school graduates falls below the number of available spaces in university for the first time in history. Not all high school graduates go on to university, of course, so universities have recently been scrambling to fill empty places. Many have done so by recruiting international students, mostly from China, but that will become increasingly difficult as the pool of domestic high school graduates continues to fall.
Demographic trends are powerful and slow to change, and forecasts predict that many universities will go bankrupt before equilibrium is met. The sight of university after university going bankrupt will shock older Koreans who remember when university admission was highly competitive. They will perceive a crisis, but is it really a crisis?
University education is a commodity that follows the rules of supply and demand, so falling demand will naturally reduce supply over time. The competition for a smaller supply will create winners and losers. Established universities in Seoul and a handful of national universities around the country will survive because they have the resources to compete. Smaller and newer private universities have far fewer resources; most will disappear.
What appears to be a crisis brings opportunity. The first step in dealing with the situation is to consider the meaning of higher education in the future based on an understanding of the past. The history of higher education in Korea can be divided into two main phases: elite and mass. From the founding of the Republic of Korea in 1948 to 1980, higher education was largely elite. The number of universities was restricted as was the number of students who could attend.
To gain popularity and meet the needs of a growing economy, President Chun Doo-hwan greatly increased the number of students that universities could admit in 1981. This marked the beginning of mass university education. The number of universities soared in the early 1980s, which taxed the capacity of existing universities. By the end of decade, new universities began to open. The number of high school graduates peaked in the 1980s, but the booming economy and social pressure in favor of white collar jobs enticed more high school students to go on to university.
In both eras, private universities dominated in number and percentage of enrolment, but the dominance increased even more during the mass phase. Private universities rely heavily on student tuition for funding, which limits their ability to invest in teaching and research. This explains the heavy reliance on adjunct teaching staff that receive notoriously low pay.
The number of national universities has remained constant, with the notable exception of new well-funded science and technology universities. National universities have more funding and lower tuition, but universities outside of Seoul have found it increasingly difficult to attract good students, particularly in graduate programs.
Instead of letting smaller private universities disappear, they could be merged with stronger universities, particularly national universities. This would create regional branches that could specialize in fields related to local needs. They could also develop lifelong learning programs that can enrich the community. They could also partner with local high schools to offer new opportunities for students.
Another approach would be to merge failing private universities with Korea National Open University, which would help the university reach more people. Libraries and other facilities could be open to the public. KNOU has contributed much to society and this would help it deepen its relationship with local communities.
National universities and established private universities also need reform to improve teaching and research. Most students are not happy with the quality of teaching, while university administrators have pushed professors to increase their research output, which has made it difficult for professors to focus on teaching.
The teaching-research dilemma is found everywhere. Most professors are good at both, but most are better suited for one. This is natural because teaching requires interaction with people, whereas research is often a solitary activity. The best way to overcome the dilemma is create centers of teaching and research excellence inside the university so that professors can gravitate to their natural inclination.
The famous futurist Alvin Toffler said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” If so, then improving teaching and creating more opportunities for lifelong learning should be at the center of reforms as the third phase of the history of higher education in Korea begins.
By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Ed.