Government unveils regional plan to create ‘glocal’ universities

South Korea’s Ministry of Education this month unveiled a promised plan to strengthen regional universities that have been badly affected by the country’s demographic decline and a strong student preference to study in the capital Seoul and other major cities.

Although the plan promises huge financial support for selected regional universities, including universities that can link up with world-leading industries, concerns have been voiced about the competence of local governments, which will be expected to implement the plan. Questions also remain about the future of universities not selected for the scheme.

The ministry announced the Regional Innovation System and Education (RISE) plan on 1 February 2023 to strengthen regional universities as hubs of local innovation – one of the government’s main education reform goals to be implemented this year.

The ministry aims to allocate more than half its total university grant budget to local governments and let local authorities develop plans to support individual institutions based on local needs. The ministry will select five local governments for an initial pilot programme this year, which will be expanded to all regions in 2025.

University-industry partnerships

The RISE plan will also support ‘glocal’ universities to develop programmes with global companies, linked to local economic priorities.

Under the scheme, the ministry will select 10 regional universities in 2023 to each receive a KRW100 billion (US$78 million) grant over five years. The government is planning to support up to 30 glocal universities by 2027 in this way.

For example, Kumoh National Institute of Technology in Gumi, in North Gyeongsang province, started a programme with SK Siltron, a global company with headquarters in the United States, but with plants in the province manufacturing silicon wafers used for semi-conductors.

SK Siltron will provide a customised curriculum and placements for students, and commit to hire at least 50% of the programme’s graduates. The university will also provide a graduate programme for experienced technicians in the company.

North Jeolla province is planning to apply for a glocal university grant with Jeonbuk National University. The university is already running several glocal projects including the Jeonbuk Innovating, Adventurous and Novel Technology (JIANT) project.

The focus of JIANT is nurturing local talent to serve local industries with global expertise in areas such as agricultural biology, new and renewable energy technologies, and new materials.

Fears of a shake-out

However, the government’s approach of concentrating funds on a few selected universities has led to fears of a shake-out rather than strengthening universities, and additional concerns that the decisions on how to spend the money will be left to local governments with little experience of working with universities.

Lee Hae-woo, president of Dong-a University – a private regional university in Busan, Korea’s second largest city – told Edaily on 3 February that “the 30 universities selected for the glocal university grants will be considered ‘survivable’ universities approved by the government”.

Baek Jeong-ha, chief of the Korean Council for University Education (KCUE) Research Institute of Higher Education, told University World News: “Universities need to specialise and have global competencies to survive. However, regional universities’ own budgets are not enough to build such competencies, thus they need financial support from the government.

“Considering the decrease in student population, regional universities that don’t get selected for government grants may struggle to survive.” The KCUE is an association of higher education institutions, which promotes cooperation and represents their interests.

The outlook is dim for regional universities as the projected decrease in student numbers is affecting them more than universities in the capital area.

The Korean Professors’ Union, the Korean University Workers’ Union, the Korean Irregular Professors Union (for adjunct faculty) and the Union of Korean National University Professors, in a joint statement on 8 February, said: “The glocal university grants programme is a ‘select-and-concentrate’ framework that results in support for a few regional universities and will let the others die out. The RISE plan is apparently a support plan, but in reality it is a blueprint for a market-driven shake-out.”

Even some in government back such concerns. Yang Kum-hee, chief spokesperson for the ruling People Power Party, noted after a consultation meeting on 8 January between the party and government ministers and the prime minister, that the intended reforms would lead to substandard universities closing down.

Woo Dong-gi, chair of the Presidential Committee for Balanced National Development, who was a president from 2005 to 2009 of Yeungnam University – a private regional university – said at a press conference on 18 October 2022: “It is impossible to revive all regional universities amid decreasing demographics. We need to provide a withdrawal route for universities that need to close.”

Universities face a demographic cliff edge

A survey conducted by the Ministry of Education Media Correspondents’ Association, of some 148 participants in the regular general meeting of the KCUE – all of them university presidents – found that two-thirds (65.8%) of 111 who responded predicted that more than 30 universities would close in the coming 10 years, mainly due to the demographic cliff edge.

Statistics Korea predicts that the school-age population will almost halve in the next two decades, from 7.89 million in 2020 to 4.47 million in 2040, and the population of 18-year-olds – the high school graduation age – will decrease from 442,000 in 2023 to 291,000 in 2038.

KCUE’s Research Institute of Higher Education last year also predicted that the number of students likely to enter universities will drop from 430,000 in 2021 to 280,000 in 2040. With the total entry quota for universities in the capital area and regional national universities set at around 260,000, this means private regional universities could face a crisis in coming years.

According to Jongro Academy, a major private cram school chain in South Korea, some 26 degree courses had no applicants this year, all of them at regional universities. Around 14 out of 15 universities had the same number of applicants per place, and 59 out of 64 universities (86%) that had a competition rate of less than 3:1 for regular admissions, were regional universities.

Students can apply to three universities during regular admissions, so a university with fewer than three applicants per place is considered not to have enough applications for a course.

The southern provinces – including South and North Jeolla province, and South and North Gyeongsang province – this year have a competition rate lower than 3:1 for regular admissions.

Lim Sung-ho, CEO of Jongro Academy, told University World News: “Announcements of new government policies (such as RISE) don’t show the real impacts [of policies]”.

Are local governments ready?

Another concern is whether local governments have the competence to decide on the allocation of more than half the funds handled by the government.

Education administration and budgets have not been part of local government responsibilities, so local governments have little experience of administering the sector. In addition, heads of local governments are elected positions, so some fear political risks to university autonomy.

Lee Kang-hyung, director of planning at Kyungpook National University in Daegu and chair of the Korean University Planning Chiefs Council, told University World News: “Local governments will need organisations that understand universities.”

“Most local governments don’t have departments to look into universities, which means they cannot judge how to align industrial needs and investment in universities,” Lee said.

Im To-bin, professor at the Graduate School of Public Administration of Seoul National University, said: “Heads of local governments will be able to support universities effectively as they know regional needs well. However, they are elected and have political leanings, so they might infringe on the autonomy of universities.”

Ahn Hyunsik, professor of robot systems engineering at Tongmyong University in Busan, said: “Moving the responsibility to local governments is a positive direction, but if local governments use the same standardised measures used previously by the ministry to decide the allocation of funds, then the results will be similar to what went before.”

In his view, previous government financial support failed because it was not based on qualitative assessments that took into account the goals of individual universities.

Despite the doubts, Education Minister Lee Ju-ho has started to meet local government officials and regional university presidents to promote the new plan. He went to North Gyeongsang province on 3 February.

At a meeting in North Jeolla province on 10 February, he said: “The ministry is seriously addressing this big crisis [in the regions]. We think this is our last chance to revive regional universities, thus we will have a future-oriented paradigm shift” which gives local authorities more say.

Lee added that other areas, such as visas for international students and deregulation issues, need the cooperation of other ministries, like foreign affairs, to turn around regional universities.