Discontent over university evaluations and reform

As South Korea’s Ministry of Education announced the result of its national evaluation of universities last month, part of a plan to push ahead with structural reforms of higher education, many universities are dissatisfied with the results and most oppose the ministry's reform plans.

Since the end of last year, the ministry has been carrying out the Structural Reform Evaluation to assess the quality of 298 higher education institutions. However major organisations including the Korea Federation of National University Professor Associations, Korea Professor Union, Professors for Democracy, and the Korea Association of University Professors have spoken out against the evaluation process and its results – some highly ranked institutions were deemed to be of poor educational quality under the evaluation.

More than 1,000 members of seven professors’ organisations gathered on 18 September in Yeouido, Seoul, the area close to the National Assembly. “The Ministry of Education is threatening universities with administrative and financial measures. The ministry must stop such pre-modern behaviour and abolish the university evaluation system and the structural reform bill [that is] trying to strengthen its illegal control [over universities].”

The evaluation process has also been tainted by thus far unsubstantiated allegations of universities lobbying evaluation staff or the ministry, and by rumours of coercion during the evaluations, so that institutions could obtain a higher grading.

One vocational college claimed the evaluation team leader was a fired faculty member of the college, who gave the institution low grades for personal reasons.

Five grades

Some 163 four-year universities and 135 two-year vocational colleges were evaluated and categorised into five grades according to which student places will be allocated.

According to the results announced by the government at the end of August, 48 institutions awarded the top evaluation grade – Grade A – will be allowed to cut their student enrolments voluntarily. Some 82 Grade B institutions and 94 Grade C institutions are advised to cut their student enrolments by 3-7% by 2017.

Although these are ministry recommendations, if institutions do not follow them, the ministry intends to bar them from receiving state funds, so the evaluation is a high-stakes process for many institutions. A reduction in enrolments will also mean a drop in income for individual universities as over three-quarters of their budget comes from tuition fees.

Some 53 Grade D institutions will have to cut their student enrolments by 7-10% by 2017 and will be banned from applying for new state-funded projects. They will still receive state funds for scholarships for low-income students but access to finance for other state-funded scholarships will be restricted. Some 23 institutions will also face cuts in state-funded student loan programmes for new students.

Some 13 institutions coming under the lowest criteria – Grade E – will be totally banned from state-funded projects, state-funded scholarships or student loan programmes.

“Because that translates into a de facto death sentence for E-grade schools in particular, they’ll have serious trouble attracting students,” noted an editorial in the local JoongAng Daily newspaper earlier this month.

When the evaluation plan was introduced in January 2014, the ministry had forecast that the existing student quotas allocated to universities and colleges would exceed the number of high school leavers from 2018 onwards, due to demographic decline. According to the ministry the gap will rapidly increase after 2020, to 160,000 by 2023.

The main purpose of the evaluation is to reduce the oversupply of student places. There will be three phases of evaluation, with a target of reducing enrolment quotas by 40,000 by 2016, another 50,000 between 2017 and 2019, and 70,000 between 2020 and 2023 – a total reduction of 160,000 by 2023.

’Poor’ evaluation

This year’s evaluation, carried out by specially constituted evaluation teams independent from the ministry, is the first phase, with recommended cuts of around 47,000. As the cuts are not mandatory, the government is optimistic about achieving the target of 40,000.

But the universities – and not just those in the Grade D and E group – are criticising what they say is a poor evaluation. The evaluations guidelines were changed four times after the first announcement, leading to widespread confusion within universities.

The on-the-spot observations by the evaluation teams after the universities drew up self-evaluation reports, was not an observation but just an interview about the reports at each school, the universities said.

The evaluation teams for each area had different standards, according to university staff.

“More than half of the evaluation staff didn't even know the exact criteria of the evaluation. And there were reports that could not have been written without leaked information from the ministry,” said an evaluation staff member on condition of anonymity, referring to the possibility that some institutions had an advantage over others by obtaining additional information on detailed criteria for evaluation and other details of the process.

“If the reform is so important, they should have done the evaluation properly, not like this,” he said.

Initially the ministry planned a five-grade evaluation, but the D group was divided in two (D1 and D2), leading to six grades. The ministry said in its evaluation manual 10% of the D group could be promoted to the C group. But none were promoted.

Legislative delay

Legislation problems have also muddied the process. The ‘university evaluation and structural reform bill’ proposed in April 2014 should have been legislated before the evaluation. But due to resistance from the higher education sector the bill is still pending in the National Assembly.

The assembly will try to discuss the bill after October. Meanwhile professors' groups say there is currently no legal basis for the evaluation or the cuts in student enrolment quotas being demanded by the ministry.

Ban Sang-jin, professor at Chonbuk National University, said: “The ministry is pushing ahead with the evaluation, controlling universities with financial aids. And now it is forcing the assembly to pass the bill.”

Some institutions are taking a wait-and-see attitude, saying the ministry's advice has no legally binding force. Nonetheless, since they must follow the recommendations in order to apply for some state-funded projects, they say they will follow the ministry's advice if other institutions do so.

The bill in particular contains clauses on closing poorly managed institutions. These include allowing institutions that are forced to close to transfer their assets to a public foundation or allow their assets to be allocated to a third party designated under the law, which has led to concerns of institutions profiteering from land sales.

Responding to the discontent within universities, Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea said at the University Competitiveness Summit on 3 September: “The ministry will work hard to remedy the errors and defects so that the evaluation can be flawless in the second phase.”