New president to reduce tuition fees, jobs favouritism

South Korea’s newly elected president, Moon Jae-in, has made breaking down the near-monopoly of the country’s top universities on the best jobs a cornerstone of his campaign and has repeated a pledge made by different parties in past elections to bring down tuition fees – which are among the highest in the world.

These have been major demands of students who joined large protests in the run up to the impeachment in March of former president Park Geun-hye which led to the elections on 9 May.

As a law student at Kyung Hee University, Moon took part in the 1970s student protests against the decades-long dictatorship of Park Chung-hee – father of former president Park Geun-hye. He was also a human rights lawyer.

With youth and graduate unemployment rising to its highest point since 2012 – unemployment for those aged 15-29 is 9.7% compared to a general unemployment rate of 3.7% – student and employment issues were a central plank of Moon’s election campaign.

In particular, he has said he will tackle the ‘old boys’ network’ and dominance of the country’s top-ranked universities in securing the best jobs in business and politics for their alumni, in order to improve prospects for young graduates outside the capital, Seoul.

Moon, of the liberal Democratic Party of Korea, has said he will push a bill through the National Assembly banning the need to state academic background on job applications, often criticised for favouring those from the most prestigious alma maters, and which has become even more of an issue in a tight job market for young graduates.

According to a survey on the university backgrounds of 480 CEOs at the country’s 350 top companies, released last month by CEO Score, which analyses data from Korea’s top 500 companies, 45% or 218 of them were graduates of the country’s three top universities – Seoul National University or SNU, Korea University and Yonsei University, collectively known as SKY. SNU graduates accounted for just over 27% of all CEOs, the South Korean news agency Yonhap reported.

Moon has pledged to create 810,000 jobs including 174,000 in the civil service – a big employer of graduates.

Tuition fees

During his campaign he pledged tuition fees would be brought down to half the current level. Moon has estimated that some KRW1.2 trillion, or just over US$1 billion, will be required to achieve this in public universities. But student groups have been sceptical as past efforts to achieve such reductions – mainly by providing more government scholarships than fee reductions across the board – did not result in the promised universal drop in fees.

Reducing tuition fees was a centre plank of the 2012 election manifestos of all political parties amid widespread student protests over fee levels – students had demanded a 50% cut in soaring fees and the previous government called for tuition fees to be cut by 30%, but reductions were much lower than this as private universities have autonomy in setting fees.

‘Integrated universities’

Longer term, Moon has outlined a plan to integrate all state universities, including first-ranked Seoul National University, to eliminate the rigid hierarchy among universities that leads to huge stress and large amounts spent on crammers as school-leavers sitting university entrance examinations vie to get into the top universities.

According to this radical plan, which few academics believe is likely to be implemented in full, negotiating bodies will be set up comprised of representatives of the country’s state universities to 'co-recruit' and provide graduates with diplomas from the entire network of universities. Students will be able to earn credits and faculty members will be able to teach classes at all the institutions in the network which could also eventually collaborate with private universities.

Moon has also said he will abolish international and autonomous foreign language high schools, which are seen by parents as a springboard into top universities by giving students extra skills to outperform their peers. Often very prestigious, these private schools have their own curriculum, unlike publicly-funded high schools. Moon says they will be turned into regular high schools that do not charge tuition fees.

The incoming administration is expected to either scale down or abolish the Education Ministry – a pledge made by all three main candidates during the election due to the widespread view that the ministry was overly politicised and clashed often with universities trying to safeguard their autonomy in trying to push through quality-related reforms in the higher education sector.

Instead, an independent state education committee will be set up to implement the policies outlined by Moon in his manifesto, and will allow longer term planning, preventing education plans from being halted or reversed as the administration changes every five years.