Government ups investment in semiconductor training

South Korea’s government has stepped up spending for universities as part of an ambitious new plan to expand its semiconductor industry and retain its world-leading role in the strategic sector.

Announcing substantial new cash injections aimed at boosting universities’ undergraduate and postgraduate programmes and enrolment, President Yoon Suk-yeol said that developing high-tech industries such as semiconductors “needs a quick response – as if it were a matter of survival”.

He was speaking at an emergency economic and public livelihood meeting held on 15 March at the former presidential palace, during which a new comprehensive plan was announced aimed at building cutting-edge industrial complexes in 15 regions, including the semiconductor chip-making base of Samsung Electronics and SK hynix Inc, the world’s two largest memory chip makers.

Samsung Electronics has already announced investment in the construction of five major semiconductor production plants.

According to the Ministry of Science and ICT figures released on 3 March, ICT makes up 34% of the country’s exports, and semiconductor exports account for 56% of the ICT sector.

Swift response from higher education

Along with the huge investment in industry, Yoon requested the Ministry of Education to support the country’s regional universities “to specialise in these areas by active deregulation and [by] enhancing systems”.

The ministry responded swiftly, announcing on 15 March a change in what is known as the Industry-academia-research Cooperation-based Technology Holding Company System to facilitate the setting up of such companies within universities.

Technology holding companies can profit from technologies developed by research institutes and universities. Previously, a company had to maintain a more than 10% stake in the subsidiary company that actually conducts the business and whose profits could then be reinvested by the holding company in research or training at the university. Now, the holding company stake will only apply at the time of initial establishment, giving the university a greater share of the profits later.

In another important move, the education ministry announced on 21 March an amendment to the Industrial Education Enhancement and Industry-academia-research Cooperation Promotion Act to allow universities to increase their government-imposed student quota by 20% for existing programmes which are based on contracts that allow universities to provide education programmes that companies want universities to offer. Companies in return undertake to employ the graduated students.

Previously, universities had to set up entirely new courses for contract-based education with companies.

The move to allow universities to increase their student numbers is considered a major change in the government’s quota system, which has previously operated according to strict caps, and which would have restricted the number of extra places available in the Seoul capital region.

Boosting places for semiconductor programmes

Before the latest plan several others were announced, aimed at investment in high-technology human resources, with a particular focus on semiconductors.

The Ministry of Science and ICT announced its 2023 Postgraduate ICT Talent Nurturing Project on 22 February with a budget this year of KRW127.4 billion (US$99.5 million) – 19.4% more than 2022’s budget, indicating the government’s commitment to securing human resources in this area.

This will cover the training of 3,300 key talents in areas such as artificial intelligence, semiconductors, cyber security, quantum information communication, health care ICT, and energy ICT.

The increased budget will be distributed to universities, including KRW500 million (US$390,000) for each of 12 newly-selected ICT research centres in universities, KRW1 billion each to two regional universities, and KRW125 million each for six undergraduate programmes in universities. Depending on the length of the project, the funds will be provided for up to a total of eight years.

It will also increase the undergraduate student quota for semiconductor programmes announced in July 2022 by an additional 2,000 places. On 28 February the ministry also announced KRW54 billion (US$42 million) for eight universities to specialise in semiconductor programmes – three of them in the capital area and five in other regions.

Two universities in the Seoul capital area will receive KRW4.5 billion; three regional universities will receive KRW7 billion; a collaboration between a university in the capital and a regional university will receive KRW7 billion; and consortia made up of two to three regional universities will receive KRW8.5 billion. Final decisions on the recipients will be made in May.

In January the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy also announced it would select three semiconductor specialised graduate schools for extra funding support this year. The universities, expected to be announced in April, will get up to KRW15 billion (US$11.7 million) each over five years to set up an additional 5,000 postgraduate places specialising in this field.

A ministry official told the business newspaper ChosunBiz on 21 March: “I cannot confirm the exact number or names, but I can tell you that more than 10 universities, including many of the prestigious universities, have applied for the grant.”

Scepticism outside the universities

However, despite the fact that universities stand to benefit from the government’s grants, scepticism has been expressed about the government’s talent drive.

According to Jongro Academy, a major private cram school chain in South Korea, many students fail to take up offers of places on semiconductor programmes at prestigious institutions, including Yonsei University, Korea University, Sogang University and Hanyang University. Sogang University, for example, had to run five additional admissions rounds before it filled its quota and this was a pattern followed by other institutions such as Hanyang.

Although these programmes are a stepping stone to employment for graduates in big corporations like Samsung or SK hynix Inc, a total of 73 students decided not to enrol after receiving offers from the universities to fill a quota for company-contract courses of 47 students.

Lim Sung-ho, CEO of Jongro Academy, told University World News: “The scores of students who applied to the contract programmes of Yonsei and Korea Universities may overlap with some of the students who applied for medical schools. It seems that, despite the government policies and guaranteed employment in major companies, students with the best grades prefer medical or pharmacy programmes over semiconductor programmes.”

In particular, the income of medical doctors is known to be better than that of researchers in the ICT industry.

A member of staff at a university running semiconductor programmes, who asked not to be named, told University World News: “We can easily see online postings of students saying that they left these (semiconductor) schools and are preparing to go to medical schools,” and added the trend could worsen if the government increases the student quota for medical schools, which is currently under consideration.

However, industry representatives are still pushing for talent. Park Jea-gun, president of the Korean Society of Semiconductor and Display Technology, said “there is still a big gap between the demands of the sector and the talent produced under the government’s programmes. The government should invest more to meet the needs of the industry.”

Concern over basic science

Another concern is that the emphasis on industry needs may result in a decline in basic science at universities.

Kim Byung-kook, head of the policy department of the Korean University Workers’ Union, told the Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper on 20 March: “The distribution of budget funds that is invested more in areas of industrial need and less in basic science shows the focus of government policies. It is revealing that the government is viewing universities as a substructure of industries and doesn’t recognise the needs of [university] programmes not related to industry.”

The Korean Higher Education Research Institute also said in a statement last year: “The government focuses only on human resource nurturing that is necessary in the industry while there are various fields of studies in universities. Such policies leave no place for basic science to stand on.”

However, an education ministry official denied the government is investing only in high-tech fields.

“We are balancing the needs through other projects,” he said, pointing to Brain Korea 21, a scheme to increase the number of young, talented researchers by providing grants for postgraduate students who participate in selected research projects; for students pursuing humanities research; and the University Innovation Support Project which provides financial support to universities with innovation plans that include research and talent training.