SOUTH KOREA: University reforms after fee climb-down

The South Korean government's recent offer of a reduction in tuition fees of up to 30% by 2014 fell short of the 50% fee reduction demanded by protesting students. But it has emerged that even the scaled-down offer will require a painful restructuring of universities.

Cross-party talks held at high level last week resulted in little agreement on the details of how the promised tuition fee reductions will be financed or implemented.

The fee cuts will cost 6.8 billion won (US$6.3 billion) over the next three years. They were hurriedly announced on 26 June after huge student rallies over the past month, demanding that tuition fees be slashed in half, as the government promised during its 2007 election campaign.

The Education Ministry said last week that it would carry out a fully-fledged university restructuring in the second half of the year, which could include mergers and shutdowns of poorly performing private colleges. Private universities and colleges account for 90% of higher education institutions.

Education minister Lee Joo-Ho said a special university reform committee of government and non-government representatives would be set up this month to plan the restructuring, which the government wants to implement swiftly.

The Board of Audit and Inspection will launch its largest-ever audit of private and public universities in August looking into the overall finances of universities, with a particular focus on the way they set tuition fee levels. A preliminary examination will begin this month in 20 institutions, officials said.

Education ministry officials said additional government support to universities in the form of tuition fee subsidies would be concentrated on the most viable institutions. Universities and colleges regarded as badly managed and less competitive would be weeded out.

Performance will be judged on the basis of graduate rates of employment and institutions' financial credit ratings.

Based on these criteria, private colleges and universities regarded as poorly performing currently number around 23, according to a government 'blacklist' already drawn up. But the criteria will be tightened further, adding another 27 institutions to the list, minister Lee said.

As part of the plan, the ruling party approved revision bills last week. This will allow the government to remove underperforming or corrupt university managements.

Other revisions of the existing private universities law such as restricting accumulating tuition revenues to a certain ratio, thus forcing institutions to maximise their budget expenditures, were also passed by parliament's education committee last week.

However, the committee has so far failed to reach a consensus on other urgent issues related to the actual amount of government financial support to higher education and the financial restructuring of private institutions.

With regard to public sector universities, the lowest performing 15% of 31 national and state universities will also be closely scrutinised and their student bodies reduced by 5% to 20% under the proposed restructuring. Some four or five public universities are likely to have their student numbers decreased under the plan, the ministry said.

These moves will pave the way for tuition fee reductions across all the country's universities and colleges, partly funded from the public purse.

In closely-watched cross-party talks earlier last week between President Lee Mung Bak and Sohn Kak Kyu, Chairman of the main opposition Democratic Party (DP), the party leaders agreed on the need to restructure the sector and reduce tuition fees but were split on the scale of tuition fee reductions and how they should be funded.

The DP insists that additional funding is required to fund tuition fee reductions. According to DP spokesman Lee Yong-sup, party leader Sohn suggested that priority assistance should be provided to low-income students in the second semester of this year, with financial support to enable a 50% reduction in fees available from the first semester of next year.

But the South Korean president said this would be difficult: "We will need to examine the income level to which we can extend scholarships together with the issue of restructuring, and there needs to be independent efforts by universities, where they are not going to take the tuition money to construct buildings," Lee said.

Kim Young-gil, President of Handong Global University and Chair of the Korea Council for University Education, said the government moves risked damaging the autonomy of universities.

Universities argue that funds derived from tuition fees have helped to build top-class research facilities, have increased pay levels to help recruit 'better-known' professors and have provided scholarships for foreign students.

These efforts have also helped to improve universities' domestic and international league table rankings, which could be jeopardised by cutbacks being proposed as part of the restructuring.

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