Even as a number of foreign universities wait in the wings to set up new branch campuses in South Korea, one in six of the country's existing 200 universities could be shut down or merged under a wide-reaching government overhaul of the higher education sector.
Details of the government's restructuring plan emerging in the last two weeks, coupled with a projected dramatic drop in Korean student numbers, has meant that foreign branch campuses will be setting up at a difficult time.
In particular the Songdo Global University Campus in Korea's Incheon Free Economic Zone is hoping to attract at least half a dozen foreign universities.
America's State University of New York at Stonybrook and George Mason University in Virginia, and Ghent University in Belgium, plan to set up in Korea within the next two years.
"We have some target student numbers. So we're obviously concerned where those numbers are going to come from," said Peter Stearns, Provost of George Mason University, which is hoping to offer its first undergraduate courses in Songdo from 2013.
Although his university has not given the final go ahead for the venture, Stearns was upbeat. "We've had funding from Songdo to plan the operation and we've been working on this now for two to three years actively," he told University World News.
Triple whammy for branch campuses
Some universities previously indicating interest, such as North Carolina State University, have put plans on hold due to "recessionary pressures", while the University of Southern California opted out late last year.
But those who stayed the course now face the 'tripple whammy' of a declining Korean birth rate, pressure on tuition fees as a result of recent student protests and the restructuring programme, which will increase scrutiny of all university operations.
In Seoul a 20-member restructuring committee established last month said all local universities, both public and private, would be evaluated. Government funding for the bottom 15% of public universities will be cut. Others will face pressure to merge.
With the evaluations starting in September, the cull of Korean institutions could begin as early as next year. "They will complete the evaluations within this year," Kim Young-Gil, head of the Korean Council for University Education, told University World News.
The evaluation criteria include graduate employment rates, the rate of increase in tuition fees, and how easily institutions fill student places at the beginning of each academic year - almost a third of universities and technical colleges are unable to fulfill their enrolment quotas due to an excess of places.
Another key criterion is the number of full-time staff, as the government believes over-reliance on part-time or visiting academics lowers quality. The standard of facilities for foreign students will also be included in the evaluation. Both are of direct relevance to branch campuses.
But with many of the foreign institutions setting up in new facilities being constructed by the Incheon Free Economic Zone authority, Stearns said: "I think Songdo is fully compliant in that area. It's a very attractive set up."
Fees debate and demographic decline
The restructuring plan was introduced after major protests by students in May and June over rising tuition fees. The government insists restructuring must take place before tuition fee subsidies can be increased to help lower fees.
But Kim believes the restructuring would have been inevitable even without the student protests. "Right now 83% of Korean high school graduates go to college but in five years time a severe reduction in the birth rate will lead to a severe reduction in admissions and many universities will meet with financial problems.
"Private universities will face a big problem in five to 10 years without restructuring," he said.
The Korean Educational Development Institute has forecast that on current demographic trends, not taking into account the restructuring plans, some 90 colleges could close by 2030.
And the Korean government may find it hard to justify setting up new foreign institutions when it is proposing painful cuts to the number of its own universities, including private institutions.
"In Korea they have too many schools [universities] and it's actually good that they've recognised it, and the demographic situation is constrained...we're aware of that, and taking that into account in our marketing plans," said George Mason's Stearns. "But it's a risk and it's one of the factors we think about quite actively.
"On the other hand they're strongly pushing for higher quality education, they're pushing more instruction in the English language and they're actively encouraging foreign institutions to set up as part of their upgrading process. So, while the numbers are daunting, the future trajectory is encouraging."
Detailed analysis of fees
Ghent University in Belgium is also actively pursuing a branch campus after signing a memorandum of understanding in March with the Incheon Free Economic Zone authority. But this was before the protests over tuition fees, and the restructuring of Korean universities was announced.
Thomas Buerman, operational manager of Ghent University's Songdo branch, said the campus would be eligible for a start-up grant from Songdo and would be carrying out a detailed analysis of tuition fees.
"There is a big discussion about tuition fees in Korea and we want to ensure we have a good place in the market," Buerman said.
He said fees at the Ghent branch campus would be "in the higher level" of the fees range in Korea. But "if the whole tuition fee market is scaled down, we have to move with that," he acknowledged.
Although private university tuition fees are 30% to 40% higher than those of public universities, fees will be frozen for at least the next three years, so income is likely to stagnate.
This could have an impact on branch campus economic projections as most institutions say they intend to rely entirely on fee income when start-up subsidies offered by Songdo expire after around five years of operation.
The first Ghent branch campus undergraduates would be admitted in 2013, reaching full capacity by 2019, just when Korea's student-age cohort drops dramatically. "Its worrying, that's for sure. It is a very competitive environment and we will have to market ourselves very well," Buerman said.
Buerman and others have said they will concentrate more on trying to attract students from outside Korea.
"The Songdo project has always been conceived of as an international operation, not just a Korean one," said Stearns. "We anticipate active recruitment in China, Mongolia, Vietnam, possibly the Eastern part of Russia. That obviously doesn't erase the problem, but it modifies the [student] numbers issue."
Others hinted that private universities, including overseas branch campuses at Songdo, may even be eligible for government tuition fee subsidies, which would help keep them attractive for students.
Kim expressed the hope that after the restructuring the government would agree to support some private universities, which make up 80% of higher education institutions. Unlike private universities in other countries such as Japan, which receive around 20% of their funds from public sources, Korean private institutions receive no government funds at all.
The prospect of government help could be the light at the end of a long tunnel for overseas branch campuses as well.
SOUTH KOREA: University reforms after fee climb-down
SOUTH KOREA: Universities will be asked to cut fees
SOUTH KOREA: Tuition fees cut after protests
SOUTH KOREA: Global campus for foreign universities
* See also Yojana Sharma's article, "SOUTH KOREA: Foreign institutions face inspections", in the News section.
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