Government pushes to deregulate universities with landmark Act

South Korea’s president Yoon Suk-yeol, elected in March 2022 and inaugurated as president in May the same year, is pushing ahead with major higher education reforms by increasing university autonomy and promoting regional institutions as hubs of local innovation. But as the economy stalls, he has baulked at university demands to be allowed to raise tuition fees.

Crucially, on 24 December South Korea’s National Assembly passed the Special Accounting Act to secure the additional budget for higher education, previously considered as one of the biggest obstacles for the government’s higher education reform agenda.

It provides for an additional 9.74 trillion won (US$7.7 billion) to higher education to fund the government’s changes, including renovating buildings and developing new curricula, and increases resources for training graduates in high technology sectors.

After a slow start due to problems with education minister appointees – Lee Ju-ho, Yoon’s third appointment to the post of education minister, only took up the position in November after two resignations – major reforms have been announced.

The reforms change the way universities are assessed for government financial support, altering the previously strict student quota system, and relaxing rules on the use of buildings and endowments.

However, despite what some see as remarkable progress since Lee Ju-ho’s inauguration as education minister in early November, Yoon’s education goals require more legislation and also rely on the cooperation of regional governments, experts said.

Kim Jisoo, research fellow at the Korean Educational Development Institute, told University World News: “The reforms of the government might bring important changes in the higher education field, but the tasks need to be supported by legislation, so it is unsure how far the goals will be reached.”

Problems securing education minister

Yoon’s legislative agenda was initially hampered by persistent problems in securing his nominees for education minister, amid criticism from the education sector of the new administration’s lack of expertise. There were no education experts among the members of the presidential transition committee’s education sub-committee.

As President-elect, Yoon in April nominated Kim In-chul, former chair of the Korean Council for University Education and former president of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, as deputy prime minister and education minister. However, Kim pulled out in May amid allegations of misconduct during his term as president at the university and other allegations of favouritism related to Fulbright scholarships received by family members.

On 4 July, Yoon appointed Park Soon-ae, a professor at the Graduate School of Public Administration at Seoul National University, as deputy prime minister and education minister, despite criticism of her perceived lack of educational professionalism, allegations of drunk driving and other accusations including plagiarism. In the end Park resigned over a public backlash against her proposal to lower the elementary school entry age.

After two consecutive failures, the ministerial post remained vacant for around three months before Yoon appointed Lee Ju-ho – a former minister of education, science and technology – on 7 November.

Although Lee was criticised during his time as science minister by both conservative and progressive groups in the National Assembly for taking an approach to education based on mainly economic considerations, he nonetheless has experience driving through initiatives for education reforms, and as a fellow member of the National Assembly his nomination to the ministerial post was seen as less likely to be opposed by Assembly members.

‘110 Tasks’ but tuition fee rises not on the cards

Yoon’s presidential transition committee set out 110 national tasks in early May, including greater institutional autonomy and strengthening regional institutions, as well as focusing on the role of higher education in developing human resources for leading-edge technologies.

The tasks included “cultivating one-million-strong digital talent” under the Ministry of Education as well as the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy and the Ministry of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises and Startups.

University autonomy and promoting regional institutions is not a new departure for the Korean government but they were the focus of discontent in the higher education community during the outgoing Moon Jae-in government.

According to a survey conducted between 28 December 2021 and 15 January 2022 by a Korean higher education newspaper, University’s Line, the higher education policy most respondents most wanted scrapped was the national evaluation of universities conducted by the government since 2015.

Around 48% of 200 staff and 40.6% of 200 faculty members said in the survey they opposed the national evaluation. The top reason for negative views of the Moon government’s policies was seen as the disparity between regional and central institutions, with a quarter of 600 staff, faculty and students surveyed citing it.

Kim Kyung-tae, chair of the Korean University College Planning Chiefs Council, said on 7 July during the council’s regular general assembly that “challenges such as demographic decline and frozen tuition fees make it difficult for colleges to survive. If these problems cannot be solved, regional colleges will become extinct”.

Vice Education Minister Jang Sang-yoon, who is from an administrative and non-educational background, informed university presidents at a Korean Council for University Education (KCUE) seminar on 23 June that deregulating university tuition fees would be one of the steps towards more autonomy.

Government-controlled university tuition fees have been frozen since 2009. Although the government secured the new budget to back some of its ‘tasks’, it failed to deregulate tuition fees that could provide universities with independent financial resources.

After a strong public backlash against the possibility of tuition fee rises the ministry announced: “There will be no rise in tuition fees for a while.”

Economic considerations made it more difficult for the government to push through tuition fee rises. On 28 December the Ministry of Education said in a statement: “We did not review an increase of tuition fees. This issue needs to be discussed more carefully considering current economic circumstances.”

In a meeting on the government’s economic policy, Yoon had earlier said: “With fears over stagflation emerging, the economy and the market are faltering due to combination of challenges.”

A professor at one of the major universities in Seoul, asking not to be named, told University World News: “Higher education was pretty much regulated under the government until now, and the Yoon government is trying to deregulate and provide more financial support.

“However, the frozen tuition fees are a great barrier for universities [to raise funds], so it is still unknown whether the [government’s] support will be palpable to the [higher education] community.”

Special Accounting Act provides resources

The government tabled a new bill in June aimed at increasing university autonomy and securing an increased budget for higher education – the Special Accounting Act for Higher and Lifelong Education.

However, its passage though the National Assembly was stalled until Lee Ju-ho took office as education minister, promising education reform including “measures to overhaul regulations and support regional colleges” at his inauguration ceremony on 7 November.

On 24 December the National Assembly passed the Special Accounting Act. It provides for an additional 9.74 trillion won (US$7.7 billion) to higher education in the 2023 budget – though this was less than the initially announced 11.2 trillion won (US $8.4 billion) amid objections from the K-12 education sector.

The government originally planned to redirect 3.2 trillion won (US$2.5 billion) to higher education, but during the Assembly deliberations this was reduced to 1.52 trillion won (US$1.2 billion) redirected from primary and secondary education in 2023, which the government justified as due to a decline in the school-age population.

The bill was also designated as a ‘temporary three-year bill’ to overcome the objections. This limits the bill to three years, if it is not later extended.

Baek Jeong-ha, chief of the KCUE Research Institute of Higher Education, said: “Before the legislation it was difficult to predict the budget and every year the goal was to secure enough budget, but afterwards the higher education sector will have a predictable budget and be able to develop long-term plans based on it.”

Won-hwa Hong, KCUE chair, said: “We thank the government and assembly for understanding the financial difficulties of universities and working together to secure a stable budget for the improvement of higher education.”

Institutional assessments and student quotas

Notably, the higher budget provides funds to replace the government’s uniform evaluation of universities conducted since 2015 – the assessment results of 318 universities had been used as criteria for government financial support.

The new assessments will be made not by the government but by autonomous bodies and will be differentiated assessments considering the different circumstances, experts said, adding that this will lift the pressure on institutions of preparing for a uniform high stakes evaluation.

The ministry said in mid-December that it would abolish the uniform evaluation system after the end of the current cycle in 2025, and replace it with financial evaluations carried out by the Korea Advancing Schools Foundation, and institutional accreditations by the KCUE and the Korean Council for University College Education.

The Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations (KFTA), which includes higher education professors among its members, stated: “We welcome the discontinuance of the Basic Competency Assessment of Universities, as universities will become more independent from the government’s financial control, recover autonomy, be relieved of assessment pressure, and [will be able to] focus on education and research.”

Strict government-regulated student quotas have also been eased. Universities will have more autonomy over student quotas under the government’s plan. This will have an impact, for example, on mergers of institutions that result from demographic decline.

Universities are required to maintain the same or more personnel to merge or establish new departments, but in future they will be able to restructure departments freely if the student quota of the whole merged institutions does not increase.

Universities will also be able to increase the overall student quota in leading-edge technology areas if they have enough faculty members. Local universities and colleges will be able to recruit more students if students drop out or fail to register, allowing institutions to recruit for other programmes or even establish new programmes to recruit students.

Responding to industry and high tech

The Yoon government has a particular focus on increasing graduates and postgraduates in leading-edge technologies, outlined in Yoon’s ‘110 tasks’.

Tasks relating to university autonomy and stronger local universities included specific goals related to industrial needs, such as increasing academic flexibility “to meet demands in the fields of leading-edge technologies” and introducing a one-stop service model “to offer support responsive to local industrial demands”.

In October, the ministry announced revisions to the accreditation system. It used to approve online degree courses in non-cyber universities so that regular non-cyber universities may operate more 100% online degree courses in leading-edge technologies.

However, there has been some criticism of focusing human resource development on industry’s needs rather than educational goals.

The Korean Professors’ Union, the Korean University Workers’ Union and the Korean Irregular Professors Union (for adjunct faculty), in a joint statement on 27 June, said: “The ‘tasks’ are turning universities into vocational education institutes, and higher education into a substructure of industries.”

Kim Ju-young, senior researcher in the policy department of KFTA, told University World News that the previous Moon government had “emphasised public values of higher education, and support was focused on public universities while private institutions were regulated, so there are expectations of deregulation and financial support.”

“However, there are concerns around the emphasis on leading-edge technologies and industrial demands. Thus, the government should find measures to secure autonomy and diversity for universities in practice.”

Other deregulation measures

Other deregulation measures were announced. In June, the Ministry of Education revised the “Guidelines on the Property Management of Private Higher Education Institutes”, to allow more flexible use of their properties and assets to help improve university finances through extra revenues.

These included allowing university premises to be used for profit, such as accommodating some businesses in university buildings, which had been previously limited, or the construction of buildings for non-educational purposes. Funds raised from such properties will be allowed to be used for multiple purposes and not limited just to paying taxes and balancing university accounts.

Other restrictions on buildings, land, personnel and endowments were eased. For example, regular universities could only have 20% of academics as visiting or affiliated professors. The limit has been changed to one third.

If a university wanted to move its campus, it needed 100% of the required land and buildings according to student numbers on each of both its sites, but now it can move with just enough land and buildings on the new site.

Founders previously needed to have all the required land as self-owned property. Now they can also lease property from others.

The criterion for the amount of required land, buildings, personnel and endowments had previously been based on student quotas. This has now changed to registered student numbers, which will help universities that cannot recruit all the students in the quota.

The required building space for each student is also reduced to 12 square metres for humanities and social study and 14 square metres for other disciplines – it was 17 to 20 square metres for other disciplines.

Formerly, in mergers, colleges or vocational universities had to reduce more than 60% of the student quota – but now it can just not increase the quota of each institution.

Hurdles ahead

Despite these milestones of the Yoon government, there are still some hurdles ahead.

The ministry needs cooperation from local governments to strengthen local institutions, and the capacities and competencies of local governments to support higher education.

KCUE chair Hong is concerned about the competence of local governments and the politicisation of universities. “It is really worrying that policies on universities can change according to the relationships with governors and mayors. Universities can become subordinate to them, and can be even forced to support election campaigns.”

A survey conducted at the Korean Council for University Education seminar in June showed that 59.65% of presidents of regional universities were against giving more financial and administrative authority to local governments, while just 28.57% of university presidents in the capital area Seoul opposed this.