Student quota changes aim at growing semiconductor field

South Korea’s Education Ministry is expected to issue a decree to raise strict student quota limitations on universities to encourage institutions to open up new departments or expand existing departments to attract more students to study semiconductor technologies.

Student quotas are the mainstay of the Korean government’s policies to ensure universities in the regions remain viable as the population declines.

The government plans to increase the number of undergraduates in the semiconductor field by about 1,300 each year, many of them at universities in the Seoul metropolitan area, once the student quota cap is raised.

A recent Education Ministry survey found that 14 institutions in the Seoul metropolitan area wanted to increase their student numbers by approximately 1,266 as part of the semiconductor course expansion, while six universities in the provinces indicated an intention to increase the number of students by some 315.

Quota changes, opposed by provincial universities, were flagged in a ministry announcement in July that indicated an intention to lift restrictions on universities in order to nurture more semiconductor talent, without indicating how it would do this under an opposition-dominated legislature.

On 19 July, then deputy prime minister and minister of education Park Soon-ae announced the ‘Semiconductor-related Talent Cultivation Plan’ together with the ministries of economy and finance; science and ICT; trade, industry and energy; and employment and labour.

Ten-year plan

As many as 20 universities would be designated as specialising in semiconductors by 2026, Park said, part of a plan to train 150,000 semiconductor workers over the next decade.

That figure is more than four times the number of 36,000 semiconductor professionals the previous administration of president Moon Jae-in had in its sights.

To fund the latest plan, around US$2.8 billion will be ‘redirected’ from the 2022 education budget for early childhood, elementary and secondary education, as the school age population declines – a move that has prompted strong criticism from school teachers as being ‘short-sighted’.

According to the Korea Semiconductor Industry Association, as the semiconductor industry grows, the number of industrial workers is expected to increase from about 177,000 now to about 304,000 in 10 years’ time – with an anticipated shortfall of some 137,000.

Semiconductors – an essential component in microchips – accounted for 20% of all Korean exports in 2021. Growing the industry and increasing talent for it was among the electoral promises made by President Yoon Suk-yeol. Yoon took office in May.

“Semiconductors have been the backbone of the Korean economy, feeding people,” Yoon said during his presidential campaign. “But now competition is too fierce around the world and China is chasing after us with a force of engineers dozens of times larger than Korea’s. Our future will turn dark if we turn away.”

Yoon named Lee Jong-ho, a computer engineering professor and director of the Inter-University Semiconductor Research Center at Seoul National University, as minister of science and ICT.

The Education Ministry has also proposed a plan to relax the qualification requirements for adjunct professors and guest professors to lure them from industry.

The expected ministerial decree could include revisions to the existing higher education and private schools acts in order to lift some legally binding restrictions on student and teacher recruitment. According to the existing Higher Education Act, universities can only hire people with research achievements and experience as lecturers or teachers.

Resistance to changes

Lifting current restrictions, particularly student quotas in Seoul, is being strongly resisted by universities in the provinces. A committee of department heads from universities outside Seoul insisted that lifting the restrictions could widen already serious disparities between universities in the regions and those in the Seoul metropolitan area.

According to the ministry, increasing the quota in specific cases will be conditional on those universities showing they have enough specialised professors to expand these departments, and could also include other conditions such as improving university infrastructure and facilities.

Previously, universities had to meet many other criteria in order to be allowed to increase their student quota, including increasing university assets and the amount of land the university covers.

The previous Moon administration failed to implement a pledge to increase the student quotas for semiconductor departments at universities in the Seoul metropolitan area in the face of opposition from the Ministry of Education with strict regulations capping student numbers, but soon after he was elected in March this year Yoon took the ministry to task, seeing the strict quotas as an impediment.

“The Education [Ministry] has failed to provide the talented people required for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It should regard itself as an economic apparatus,” Yoon said in April.

Yoon’s former education minister, Park Soon-ae, who resigned in early August after just over a month in the post following strong opposition to her plans to lower the age for starting school, had announced a roadmap to nurture more chip industry talent before stepping down. In a significant climbdown, she had included raising the student quota.

Yoon has said he is “working hard to find and verify” a new minister, referring to the usually lengthy verification and confirmation process. He insisted Park’s resignation would not affect the rollout of the new semiconductor policy by the vice-minister of education and the presidential office.

With university plans for the spring student recruitment season for 2023 admissions already in place, experts say it is unlikely that any major student quota realignments will be in effect before the 2024 academic year.

Shortages of professors and facilities

Universities have warned that the government’s semiconductor plan is impossible to implement solely by increasing student numbers, with specialised professors also in short supply. Laboratories and equipment also need updating, they said.

Lee Ki-bong, secretary-general of the Korea Association for University Education, told local media he believed it would be difficult to nurture talent by deregulation of the quotas alone. Active budget support, flexible academic management, and the utilisation of academic space were also issues, he said.

“[The government] says the quota will be increased by 8,000 because they need industrial manpower. Is it possible to develop the right conditions for manpower training? It will not be easy to coexist with the increase in the number of semiconductor departments in a situation where university restructuring is in progress due to a decrease in the school-age population,” Lee said.

The government wants to establish joint research centres that connect different semiconductor and nanoengineering institutions in each region, led by Seoul National University (SNU) Inter-University Semiconductor Research Center.

But academics questions whether this will be possible when even a top university such as SNU says it has problems attracting students to its masters and doctoral degree programmes in semiconductors. SNU has around 161 undergraduates in its department of electrical and computer engineering across seven major disciplines including semiconductors.

Outside Seoul, four out of eight semiconductor departments at universities could not fill their seats in the on-time recruitment last year. And all have problems recruiting specialist professors.

In a recent interview, Hwang Cheol-Seong, a professor at SNU’s department of materials science and engineering, pointed out that of the 43 professors in his department, only three are researching semiconductors – fewer than 5% of the total.

Focus outside Seoul

Some institutions outside the Seoul metropolitan area will be the locus of the increased places, to placate critics opposed to lifting the student cap in Seoul where major universities interested in setting up or expanding semiconductor teaching include SNU, Yonsei University, Korea University, Dongguk University and Sungkyunkwan University.

Four institutes of science and technology outside the Seoul metropolitan area – Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology, Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology and Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology – fall under the Science and ICT Ministry remit rather than the Education Ministry.

Nonetheless, these institutions have not thus far expanded their departments due to a lack of specialised professors and budgetary restrictions.

KAIST is currently the only one of the four institutions already training undergraduate students, turning out 100 students a year specialising in semiconductors.

Seong-Hwan Cho, dean of semiconductor systems engineering at KAIST, told University World News that “as a new department, it is not easy to secure space and talent”, but that adjunct professors could be a way to expand.

“Currently, 50 professors are enrolled [at KAIST] to teach the students of SSE [semiconductor systems engineering]. Since the field of semiconductors is an integration of several disciplines and is still evolving, the curriculum will be updated regularly, and the most prestigious professors from many departments in related fields will be added to the department’s faculty through the adjunct professor system,” Cho said.

He added that KAIST alumni who have been successful in the field could also be invited back. “It would be nice if outside support could be provided so that we can provide them the proper treatment they deserve when they decide to come back as professors,” he said.

“It is not going to be easy to find the people to be trained to be experts, so I think it is one of the fields that will inevitably lose momentum without strong will and cooperation between the industry and academia,” Cho added.

Around 100 undergraduate students will be admitted to the new programme and will specialise in semiconductors from the outset, mainly under agreements with companies like Samsung Electronics which already funds students at KAIST on condition of employment with the company after graduation.

A KAIST spokesperson said the Samsung scholarships under the new degree programme from March 2023 would be more generous.

Seven universities are involved in contracts with different companies specialising in semiconductors, recruiting 360 students outside the quotas. Among the seven universities, KAIST has the largest number of new student places for 2023 under this system.