South Korea could lose half its universities within 25 years

South Korea could lose up to half of its universities within 25 years due to acute demographic decline, according to a report by Seoul National University and the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, which provides a long-term outlook on already dire short-term predictions for higher education institutions.

The report, on population change and future prospects for the regional universities sector, predicts that just 190 out of a current 385 universities will still exist in 25 years’ time, with “competition for survival in non-metropolitan areas likely to be fierce”, according to the report released on 5 December 2021.

Outside the capital Seoul, the outlook is even more grim, with just 44% of existing universities – 146 out of 331 – expected to survive, compared to the over 80% likely to survive in Seoul. It is followed by Sejong City, where around two thirds of universities are expected to still exist in 25 years’ time.

The latest predictions come as even prestigious universities in the provinces are already seeing sharp decreases in the numbers of students applying, which some experts have said is not just related to the declining birth rate but also a perception among young people of declining job opportunities outside Seoul.

According to the study, the decline will be most significant between 2037 and 2041 as the school age populations in the provinces, apart from Seoul and Gyeonggi-do province which surrounds the capital, are forecast to drop sharply during that period.

The worst hit areas are expected to be industrial Ulsan and Jeonnam province in the south-west, where only one in five existing universities are predicted to survive, based on estimates of the number of births by region, the rate of increase or decrease of the school age population and the university enrolment rate.

The predictive model is predicated on projected figures that also include unborn children based on the current low fertility rate of the population – which is one of the lowest in the world at around 0.92 children per family as of 2019.

The study predicts that within the next two decades or so, half the number of births will be concentrated in the Seoul metropolitan area, while regions will see a population outflow to the metropolitan area.

Disparities could generate conflict

It forecasts that population outflow from the regions, and a concentration of young people in Seoul and other metropolitan areas, as well as a likely disparity in university offerings and quality, “could become a factor in conflicts with the younger generation”.

Lee Dong-gyu, a professor of corporate disaster management at Dong-A University, a private university in Busan, told local media: “If the number of students decreases, tuition income will decrease, and universities cannot hire full-time faculty so only non-regular [casual] workers increase.”

“This leads to a decrease in quality of education at local universities and will bring about a vicious cycle that will widen the gap with the metropolitan area,” added Lee, who is involved in the study. Conflict could occur because young people in the metropolitan area will increasingly pay more taxes than in other regions, according to the report.

Students prefer Seoul

In Busan, South Korea’s second largest city, only seven universities and junior colleges out of 23 currently in the city are projected to survive.

Experts have noted that universities in Busan have contributed to the development of the port city, and their closure would be cause for concern due to ‘rust belt’ decline of traditional industries in the region. The city has faced a brain drain for more than a decade, with its highest achieving school leavers preferring to go to universities in Seoul.

According to the Korean Council for University Education, a large number of universities in Busan were already unable to fill the quota of students allocated by the government earlier this year.

The region had to initiate a major additional recruitment drive for another 4,600 students amid predictions from the education ministry that the situation would only get worse because of an almost 45% decline in the number of 18-year-olds since the year 2000.

According to data recently obtained from the Ministry of Education by lawmaker Kim Byung-wook of the Democratic Party of Korea, Pusan National University – a major public university – had recruited 4,567 students for the 2021 academic year but 83.7% of the successful applicants did not take up their offered places. Many of them instead went to universities in the capital.

The percentage of applicants not taking up offered places at Pusan National University has been rising, from 64.2% in 2018 to 79.2% in 2019 to 75.3% in 2020 to the 83.7% this year.

“The main reason local national universities are failing to meet their entrance quotas is that infrastructure and resources are concentrated in Seoul. Also, compared to private or national [public] universities located in the capital, public universities in other provinces lag in terms of government financial support and various investments,” Kim Byung-wook said in October.

Kim Seokho, a professor of sociology and director of the Institute for Social Development and Policy Research at Seoul National University, was quoted by Yonhap news agency as saying there was an urgent need to adjust the concentration of population, capital and industry in the metropolitan area.

It was also important to think now about improving conditions and the quality of life of young people in the regions. “Local universities should be saved so that local young people can plan their lives in the places where they were born and raised. We need to develop this together,” he said.