Government slashes university intake as population falls

Some 116 universities and colleges in South Korea will hear this month that their student intake quota will be reduced – in some cases by as much as 35% in the coming year – as the government attempts to manage the higher education sector in an era of demographic decline.

The government is aiming to reduce the number of places by around 10,000 in the coming year and is expected to cull another 120,000 places by 2023, according to targets set out in 2014 based on demographic projections.

The ministry of education and the Korea Educational Development Institute on 23 August announced the results of their evaluation of higher education capacity – a successor to the university structural reforms of 2014-16 under the previous administration of Park Geun-hye – which surveyed 187 universities and 136 professional colleges.

The evaluation measures the viability and competitiveness of universities based on criteria such as their finances and development plan in order to identify universities which will have viability problems as the population of student age continues to fall.

Some universities have said they will close or merge some courses to reduce numbers, with several universities sharing professors in order to reduce costs.

This has caused some protests at universities, where students say they had not been warned that their courses might disappear, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, which is seeing a drop in the current quota of students of 2,500, while the number of engineering students has been allowed to increase by 4,500.

Universities have been going through an appeals process since the 23 August announcement, before the government finalises the actual numbers.

‘Voluntary’ improvements

Not all the universities and professional colleges will face sanctions – the vast majority on the government’s August list have been advised to voluntarily improve their management.

However, around 30 universities and another 36 professional institutions were listed as needing improvement and were advised to reduce their current student quotas by 10%. Around 50 others will have to reduce student quotas by up to 35% in the worst cases, and face restrictions in accessing low-interest loans from the state.

A number of universities and colleges will receive government financial support from next year without having to reduce their student intake. Such financial support is usually on condition of restructuring and in the form of support for special projects such as university-industry collaborations.

All universities, except for those rated as excellent, will be subject to capacity reductions, while at the same time the ministry says it will not allow any universities to raise their tuition fee levels this year beyond the maximum allowed increase of just 1.8%, which is below inflation. Financial support from the government will be conditional on a freeze or reduction in tuition fees.

Korean universities are heavily dependent on tuition fees – the average proportion of income derived from tuition fees is around 55%, but some private institutions are 100% dependent on tuition fee income.

Competition for a declining pool of students has led the ministry to categorise 86 universities and colleges of the 116 universities and colleges that may have to reduce the student intake as “weak”.

But most of these – around 70% – are universities situated outside the capital, Seoul, and its surrounding Gyeonggi province, sparking criticism of unfair process and discrimination against areas outside the capital region.

“The government should consider that shutting down regional universities will have a negative impact on regional economies and communities,” an editorial in the Korea Times newspaper said.

At least one university – Hanzhong University, a private institution in Donghae city in Gangwon province – is in the process of being shut down and its 1,500 students transferred to other institutions, after the government declared it unviable and said it had no measures to reverse its low student enrolment rate. The government maintains it ‘misused’ funds in order to stay afloat. The university has said it has been unable to pay university staff and is wholly dependent on tuition fee income.

Last year eight universities were ordered to shut down by the ministry, including Seonam University College of Medicine in Namwon city in North Jeolla province, the first medical institution to be shut down. It closed in February, with its students transferring to the province’s other two medical schools. Another institution, Daegu University of Foreign Studies in North Gyeongsan province, was last year slated for closure.

According to a ministry forecast, some 38 universities could be forced to shut down in the coming years due to the declining birth rate.

“What has changed in the past few years is not the possibility of university closures, rather it’s the speed at which we are facing this prospect,” said Hannah Jun, professor of international business at Ewha Womans University’s Graduate School of International Studies, in an opinion article in the Korea Times.