Universities seek end to government tuition freeze

Hampered by a government regulation of domestic student fees, cash-strapped universities in South Korea are resorting to increasing international or graduate fees to stay afloat, while others have indicated they will go ahead and raise domestic fees anyway – even if it means forfeiting government grants that serve as an incentive for institutions to limit domestic fee increases.

With higher inflation and rising costs for universities, some are calling for deregulation to allow them to raise tuition fees without having to face penalties.

However, Deputy Education Minister Jang Sang-yoon confirmed at a 20 December press conference that the ministry had not discussed deregulating university fees, frozen since 2009, and considered the timing for deregulation inappropriate, given the country’s current economic situation.

His statement was a reconfirmation of government policy after he provoked a public backlash in June 2022 when he suggested a move towards tuition fee deregulation.

The situation leaves universities with limited choices.

In 2022, the University of Seoul doubled tuition fees for new undergraduate international students and raised fees for foreign graduate students by 20%. The university has around 637 foreign students, according to 2022 figures made public by the university.

Other major universities in the capital, such as Korea University and Chung-Ang, Hanyang, Kyung Hee and Sungkyunkwan universities, increased fees by between 5% and 7% in 2022.

While there was a lot of opposition to the fee hikes, particularly from international students at universities in Seoul, the number of foreign students did not decline as was feared.

A burden for international students

Ji, a Chinese international student at Joongang University, a private university in Seoul, said: “If the tuition fees were frozen like [they are] for Korean students I could focus more on my studies.” Ji works three night shifts a week at a convenience store.

Another Chinese international student studying at Sungkyunkwan University, known only as A, works every day as a tutor to be able to pay his tuition fees. A told Kyunghyang Shinmun, a major daily newspaper, “the [fee] increase may not look huge, but it is a burden for international students. It is not even easy to get part-time work because we are foreigners. I want to know why they just increased international fees.”

Around 167,000 foreign students are currently enrolled in universities in South Korea, primarily from China and Southeast Asian countries, according to 2022 statistics from the Ministry of Education. Despite dissatisfaction at the fee hikes, the number of international students has been recovering after the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the ministry, the number of international students in Korean higher education institutions increased by 9.6% last year compared to 2021, after declining during 2020 and 2021. However, international students from China – the top country of origin for international students – decreased slightly from 67,439 in 2021 to 67,348 in 2022.

The upward trend in international student numbers has continued even though several major universities in Seoul, including Chung-Ang, Hanyang, Sogang, Sungkyunkwan and Yonsei universities and the University of Seoul, announced international student fee increases of up to 5% for this year.

Sogang, Sungkyunkwan, and the University of Seoul additionally announced fee increases for graduate students of between 2% and 4%. Regional universities like Chungbuk National University, Hanbat National University in Daejon, Pusan National University and Pukyong National University also decided to increase graduate tuition fees.

Universities under pressure

Song Ki-chang, emeritus professor of education administration at Sookmyung Women’s University, said tuition fees “need to be increased in line with increasing prices, but as this is not happening for undergraduates, graduate and international students may feel the situation is unfair. However, if all fees are frozen, the quality of education may decline”.

The Korean Council for University Education (KCUE) noted in a 12 January statement that tuition fees had been frozen for 14 years since 2009, while costs have increased continuously.

According to KCUE, 2022 tuition fees were on average KRW6,326,000 (US$5,100) per year. Compared to the increase in consumer prices since 2008, it represents a 23.2% decrease in the value of fee income over 14 years, KCUE said.

In 2011 the Higher Education Act was revised to allow universities to increase tuition fees by 1.5 times the consumer price increase rate during the three preceding years. However, to control the rise in fees, universities that increased tuition fees were excluded from receiving government funds under the so-called Type II National Scholarship Programme.

Type II is a scholarship provided by the university from a combination of government and university budgets.

In 2022, tuition fee increases were capped at 1.65%, but this year the ceiling was hiked up to 4.05% as the 2022 increase in consumer prices was 5.1%, according to Statistics Korea.

Although the cap also applies to graduate student fees, graduate fees are not linked to the National Scholarship Programme, making it easier to raise them.

Lee Dong-young, a graduate student at a university in Seoul, told Kyunghyang Shinmun: “I already paid KRW25 million [about US$20,200] for my tuition while relying on student loans, and I don’t know how I will pay it all off.”

Kim Minjung, head of the All-Korean University Student Council network, told the daily Munhwa Ilbo: “The burden of frozen undergraduate tuition fees is put on graduate students, while there are many graduate students who chose to study because they could not get jobs.”

Universities forfeit funding to raise fees

Given the higher inflation, some public universities this year decided to increase undergraduate fees even if it meant forfeiting government funds for the National Scholarship Programme.

Chinju National University of Education, after a tuition review committee meeting on 13 January, decided to raise tuition fees for the first time in 14 years, announcing a 4.05% increase.

Cheongju National University of Education also decided to increase fees by 4.05% and Chuncheon National University of Education said it will increase fees by 4.02%. Other national universities of education are also expected to discuss this option at upcoming fee review committee meetings.

A staff member of Cheongju National University of Education said: “Until now we received about KRW100 million for the National Scholarship, but if we give up that budget, we can increase our income by KRW200 million [through tuition fee hikes].”

Inflation is not the only reason national universities of education have started to go against the government’s tuition fee freeze. They tend to be smaller institutions and are experiencing worse financial difficulties due to recent increases in staff wages. The proportion of the National Scholarship Programme allocated to them is also smaller as they enrol fewer students, making it easier for them to forfeit those funds in favour of tuition fee rises.

Time to deregulate

Calls for a change in the regulations are growing.

Kim Byoung-joo, professor of education at Yeungnam University, told University World News it was time to increase tuition fees. “It is not possible to increase the quality of university education without sufficient investment, and tuition fees are not so high compared to per capita income and other countries with similar tuition systems.”

“The fundamental problem is the weak financial structure of universities, which is heavily relying on tuition income,” he added.

“It is because of a larger proportion of private institutions in Korean higher education, and their main income source is tuition fees. If the government wants to ease the burden of tuition fees for students, it has to allocate more [of the] budget for higher education, which [allocation] is in the lowest group of OECD countries [for spending].”

A vice-president of the planning and coordination department at a private university in Seoul, who asked not to be named, told University World News: “Tuition fees have been frozen for almost 15 years despite the increasing expenditure due to continuous increases in prices. Thus universities are experiencing very difficult financial circumstances.

“Especially, there was a big increase in minimum wages. Energy costs also increased rapidly. Local universities are in a more difficult situation as they do not have enough students.”