Election result could scupper HE structural reforms

With the surprise defeat in last week’s national election in South Korea of the ruling Saenuri Party, the conservative party of President Park Geun-hye, the government’s structural reforms of the higher education system could be stalled by the National Assembly where her party no longer has a majority.

“Education was one of the major structural reforms of the latter half of the government’s period in power; however as the opposition [parties] won a majority [in the National Assembly] there will be an impact on the government’s higher education policies, including the university structural reform,” Kang Yumi, a manager at the Korean Institute for Education Policy, told University World News.

But Kang did not foresee a major reversal under the country's presidential system of government for policies not requiring Assembly approval. “People still think education is a major factor deepening inequality; the basis of the government’s higher education policy aiming to build a skills-based society is not expected to change,” she said.

The ruling Saenuri Party won 122 seats in the 300 seat National Assembly in elections held on 13 April – 30 less than in the last election in 2012 and the first time in 16 years a ruling party failed to hang on to its National Assembly majority. The Minjoo Party, previously the second-largest party, now has 123 seats – one more than Saenuri – though it came third as a proportion of the vote.

With seven of the eleven newly-elected independent candidates originally from Saenuri, it might still continue as the ruling party but nonetheless be short of a secure majority required to push reforms through the Assembly.

Youth discontent

Unlike the last general election when promises to reduce university tuition fees were a major national issue following massive student protests, there was less interest in higher education this time with young voters concerned about rising unemployment.

According to Statistics Korea, overall unemployment was 4.3% in March, but the jobless rate for workers aged 15 to 29 was 11.8% – a record high. The anger of young people over unemployment issues is seen by some as a reason for the ruling party’s defeat, particularly as the voter turn-out for the 20-29 age group was higher than in the last election.

Youth discontent could shift the focus of higher education policies towards employability, analysts said. However, the most likely casualty of the election result is likely to be progress in the ongoing structural reform of higher education which aims to reduce the oversupply of student places at universities at a time of rapid demographic decline. The reforms kicked off with an evaluation of universities in January 2014.

With the ‘university evaluation and structural reform bill’ proposed in April 2014 still pending in the National Assembly due to resistance from the higher education sector, the failure of the ruling party to secure a majority in the Assembly is expected to weaken the proposed reforms.

The bill includes clauses on closing down poorly-managed institutions, including the transfer of their assets.

Structural reforms

Analysts say the government will face criticism and resistance from the higher education sector if it attempts to push through the reforms without legally-binding legislation to back it.

In particular, as the two politicians who had proposed the bill – Saenuri’s Kim Hee Jung and Ayhn Hong Joon – were defeated in the election, “the reforms will lose the motivating power [behind them]", said Park Soonjoon, president of the Korea Association of University Professors.

The bleak outlook for the bill has been welcomed by some institutions, particularly private universities. “The university community is fatigued by the government's reform drive,” a staff member of a private university said on condition of anonymity.

Discontent over the government's higher education policies has also increased the sector’s distrust of the ruling party. “Overall, the university community is critical of the government's policies strengthening control on universities,” said Chun Se-Young, a professor at Chungnam National University and president of the Korean Society for the Economics and Finance of Education.

However, some fear the new configuration of parties in the Assembly will make it more difficult for the higher education community to have its concerns heard.

With neither of the two major parties securing a clear parliamentary majority, the much smaller People's Party with 38 seats could have a deciding vote on political issues. It is also two decades since the Assembly has been characterised by a three-party system.

“Until now the Korean Association of Private University Presidents delivered our opinion to the government and Assembly. But as the election has resulted in a different composition in the Assembly, I am concerned the opposition will be able to push legislation without considering the universities. I hope they will also listen to our voices,” said Kim Dojong, president of Wonkwang University.

Tuition fees

In contrast to 2012, the main parties did not campaign on a platform that strongly highlighted higher education. “The parties did not prepare education pledges properly. The content was poor and not clearly introduced to voters,” said Ahn Sun-hee, education administration professor at Joongbu University. “As a result education pledges had no effect on voters’ decisions,” he added.

“There were no new pledges, most were remakes of former pledges or already included in the plans of the central and local governments, ” said Kim Ki-Soo, president of the civil society group Citizens Action for the Promotion of Education Rights.

But there has been scrutiny of the governing party’s record on implementing its promises, in particular its flagship promise of the 2012 election to halve fees. Dissatisfaction over the government’s inability to achieve this target has contributed to increased distrust of the ruling party, analysts said.

The government and the ruling party insist they fulfilled the promise, basing their claim on the total amount of scholarship funding disbursed by the Korean Student Aid Foundation and private sector groups.

However, opposition parties and students said providing scholarships did not amount to a universal reduction in fees.

“The government promotes the view that they fulfilled the promise to halve tuition fees, but students still have to borrow lots of money to pay their tuition. The criteria for scholarships is a cause for discontent among students and we don’t even believe that the total amount [for scholarships] has been achieved,” said Kim Moon-Noh, president of the National Union of Education Universities – the student union for teacher training universities –, adding : “We want the government to keep their promise.”

The Minjoo Party and the People's Party both promised to reduce tuition fees but their approach differs. The Minjoo Party is focusing on a large fee reduction in public universities, easier to implement as private universities are autonomous, while the People's Party wants a gradual reduction for all universities.

Another government promise was to reduce the interest rate for student loans. The ruling party fulfilled their goal of reducing the interest rate to 2.9%, and exceeded it – the interest rate is currently 2.7%. However, students are not happy as the country’s base interest rate has fallen by more than the reduction in student loan interest.