Plan for dramatic university cutbacks causes disquiet
Minister of Education Seo Nam-soo said last month that the government planned to cut 160,000 university places by 2023. The ministry calculates that there are 772,000 undergraduates in South Korea at present.
"Over the next 10 years, the population of high school graduates and university applicants is expected to drop sharply, reducing the demand for universities," said Seo later.
According to the ministry, in 2013 there were 613,000 high school graduates, but by 2018 the number is projected to be only 549,000 and it is set to plummet by 2023 to 397,000 before recovering slightly to 409,000 by 2025.
"As a result, the Ministry of Education has decided to significantly reduce the number of spots for students so we can focus on enhancing the quality of their education instead," said Seo.
"We will execute a rigorous series of structural reforms within the university sector to improve the quality of education."
He also said in a briefing in January that the South Korean economy needed more creative talent. Innovation and creativity have been conspicuous in the speeches of President Park Geun-hye recently.
A representative of Yonsei University, who did not want to be named, said the proposed reforms had generated uncertainty in higher education.
While it was clear that the government wanted to shrink the size of the sector, there was less clarity over what aspects of higher education it wanted to preserve and promote: "The government hasn't defined what specific standards of quality education they are aiming for," he told University World News.
In the United States, some institutions specialised in undergraduate studies while others focused on graduate studies in a bid to maintain standards. "We don't have this here, and the government needs to create an overall standard [to abide by] and help universities develop their own niches."
Cutbacks and quality
According to the government's three-stage plan for the coming decade, 40,000 university places will be cut by 2016. In the second stage 50,000 university places will be eliminated between 2017 and 2019, and finally 60,000 will go between 2020 and 2022.
Reduced enrolment figures have serious consequences for university finances as more than three-quarters of university budgets depend on tuition fee income.
The Yonsei University representative predicted that staff changes including reductions and layoffs would probably take place at universities outside metropolitan areas, and smaller and less well-funded provincial institutions in Jeolla and Chuncheong were likely to undergo "many shut-downs".
However, lack of detail in the downsizing plans have caused much worry within smaller universities, he said.
Kim Jae Jae-kum, head of the Ministry of Education's university policy bureau, has said in remarks to local media that some 30 to 50 institutions could close in the next decade.
In the coming year the government will categorise universities according to quality, including the quality of management, with institutions performing poorly likely to have government funding jeopardised.
Currently the ministry categorises universities according to three grades and penalises institutions that are in the lowest grade for three years.
Under a new assessment plan, universities will be categorised into five grades and all but the top graded institutions will face enrolment cutbacks.
"All public, private and government-funded universities will undergo the restructuring. The new evaluation system we introduce will include legal and institutional reforms," Seo said.
"Taking into account the reduction in the number of students, college admissions resources will also be restructured."
Seo added: "We must improve the quality of education by assessing our universities. Quantitative indicators such as postgraduate job recruitment rates have been looked at [for ranking purposes] until now, instead of the actual quality of the universities."
He added that the traditional focus on getting into university has taken too much precedence over the quality of students' education.
Fostering creativity, reducing pressure
Seo's announcement also came shortly after President Park Geun-hye hinted at reforms while attending a New Year ceremony with the nation's education leaders in early January.
She said South Korea needed to foster more creative talent within the younger generation, something that could be promoted through a fairer university entrance system.
Last year, 650,000 high school students took part in the College Scholastic Ability Test, or CSAT, a notoriously difficult, fate-deciding national college and university entrance exam.
And this is only half the battle. Competition to secure a place at top-ranked universities and colleges is fierce.
Acceptance into the 'SKY' trinity of top schools - Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University - is very difficult, but ambitious students and their families will often strive for no less and often at a cost.
South Korea has the highest youth suicide rates among OECD member nations, and a key cause is considered to be the pressures of its competitive academic system and the stress of gaining university entrance.
Exactly how this selection system will be changed has yet to be revealed, but a flavour of the government's thinking - albeit so far only in schools - was revealed in Seo's plans to implement a 'free learning semester' in South Korean middle schools by 2016.
The programme aims to lessen the workload and pressure on students by providing them with a test- and exam-free semester each year. If the project goes well, Seo plans to implement it in secondary schools too.
These measures are designed to fulfil President Park's previous campaign promises to foster meritocracy and the creative potential of young generations. Seo said more details on this and university evaluation plans will be released at a later date.
The reforms could be assisted by the cut-backs, with 'fat' being cut from the higher education system.
Yonsei's representative said the whole South Korean job market needed reform, so that jobs were not so closely tied to a qualification from a particular university.
"It's not the university system that needs changes. I think if Korea wants to improve the lives of these students, the social reward system [status system] also needs to change. And unless it does, these reforms don't stand to help students or staff much."