In an astonishing attack on higher education elitism, South Korea’s main opposition party has said it could dismantle the country’s most prestigious university – Seoul National University – if it comes to power in upcoming presidential elections.
The party said it was considering including this in its election pledge in a bid to reform a higher education system that engenders highly stressful competition for elite universities, leads to school-tie cronyism in all walks of life and a concentration of top talent in one university, and distorts the secondary school system as young people cram for university entrance examinations.
The opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) said the aim was to eliminate the “deep-rooted reputation” of Seoul National University (SNU).
“We will get rid of the yearly competition to get into SNU and the discrimination [caused by] college rankings,” the DUP policy chief, Lee Yong Sup, said on 1 July.
He said the party was considering dismantling the university as part of its official platform for presidential elections in December, and to counter excessive competition in college entrance and “rampant academic cliques”.
A large number of politicians, top scientists, many business chief executives, judges and other professionals are alumni of the university. It currently has 30,000 students – all of them among the top scorers in the country’s competitive national university entrance examination.
SNU was not only sucking away talent from other universities, but also contributing to an imbalance in economic growth by depriving regional universities of the best brains, opposition politicians said.
One plan to help distribute talent more evenly among universities and outside Seoul, where it is concentrated, would be to create a national university system with campuses in different cities, bestowing the same degrees on students of all universities in the system.
“The whole point of the plan is to resolve the excessive competition in getting into college, private education spending, education centred in the metropolitan regions and taking the pressure off of college entrance,” Lee said.
“If the regional state-run universities’ level of education is upgraded to the same level as SNU, then the problems can be solved.
“Dispersing all of SNU’s undergraduate programme to regional university campuses could be an option,” Lee said. SNU would remain a graduate and research institution only.
Some 30 public universities across the country would form an alliance to exchange credits, and share professors and lectures in a system described by Lee as “levelling up”. He said the new system could be in place by 2017 if his party won the elections at the end of the year.
“The system would be somewhat like the French system or the California state system where Paris has universities numbered according to the district and California runs state-run universities on multiple campuses in Berkeley, Los Angeles and Irvine,” Lee said.
A similar plan was proposed by the smaller opposition Unified Progressive Party (UPP) during Korea’s National Assembly elections in April.
With seats in the National Assembly divided almost equally between the ruling conservative Saenuri Party and the opposition DUP and UPP, parties are looking for eye-catching policies to attract votes, particularly from young and first-time voters such as students.
Under South Korea’s political system, the president is directly elected and party policies play an important role in presidential polls. The president appoints the prime minister, makes policy proposals that the National Assembly can approve, reject or amend, and can strongly influence which party gains the majority next time around. With a hung parliament, the presidential election in December is even more important than usual.
One issue affecting families is the excessive cost of cram schools as students prepare for competitive university entrance examinations.
However, many students said it was the large number of private universities in Korea that contributed to the hierarchical nature of the higher education system and the government did not have the power to change that.
Students said in microblog postings that private universities would merely rise to take the place of SNU.
Others described the plan as ‘blatantly populist’ and designed to appeal to regional voters.
National newspapers pointed out that the plan was nothing new and had been proposed in 2004 during the presidency of Roh Moo-hyun, but had been abandoned in the face of resistance from SNU professors, students and others.
“It’s like burning a house to roast a pig” the Korea Times said in an editorial. “It would be naïve to expect that all our education problems would be resolved overnight by simply dismantling the most prestigious university.
“Rather, experts say, Yonsei and Korea Universities in Seoul would replace SNU as the top higher education learning institutions and deep-rooted discrimination, according to which university you graduated [from], would remain intact.”
It added: “At a time when universities’ competitiveness is regarded as national competitiveness, it would be absurd to claim that a well-performing university should be downgraded to be on a par with ordinary colleges.”
By Tuesday, some politicians said the DUP appeared to be softening its stance on whether to include the policy in its election manifesto, in the face of widespread derision and a call from students to strengthen other universities rather than dismantle SNU.
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