As student numbers drop, experts mull university closures

With the latest figures pointing to an almost 40% decline in student numbers by 2040, there is increased urgency to restructure South Korea’s university sector, with experts examining ways to shutter institutions that are not viable, including paying foundations to close their loss-making private institutions.

Presenting the latest research on dealing with the decline in student numbers at a forum of the Korean Council for University Education (KCUE) and the Korean Educational Research Association held on 10 May in Seoul, Kim Jung-ho, professor of political science at Inha University and a member of the research team, said: “The problem is that we have many so-called zombie universities that only rely on financial support from the government [to survive].”

‘Zombie university’ is a term first given by the media to refer to institutions that are forced to rely on government funding in order to stay open.

“After supporting universities financially, we need to strictly evaluate and choose universities that should be closed based on criteria like the educational restitution rate, employment rate of graduates and the number of students per total quota,” Kim said.

The KCUE will suggest restructuring policies to the Ministry of Education and the country’s National Assembly based on the forum discussion. The forum noted a need for policies and guidelines on when and how to shut the universities, particularly private institutions, and encourage them to close voluntarily.

Loss of assets

One reason private universities prefer to keep surviving on government funding is because they are reluctant to lose their assets, specifically, their land and buildings.

Kim Sung-ki, professor in the graduate school of education at Hyupsung University, said: “According to the current law, the assets of university foundations become vested in the government [upon closure].”

“We need a policy that will allow universities to close voluntarily,” he told the forum.

Shin Sung-wook, professor at the Catholic University of Pusan, proposed the idea of providing financial support for universities to shut down. “It is difficult to merge private universities. Providing grants to university foundations that voluntarily close their universities can be one measure,” he said.

Choi Kyu-bong, secretary general of the Korea Association of Private School Foundations, which includes universities and colleges, backed this idea, saying the land and property of [private] universities needed to be protected. “The reason universities cannot recruit students is the demographic decline, and that is not a cause attributable to the universities themselves,” he added.

Another member of the research team, Nam Doo-woo, assistant professor of finance at Inha University, advocated strong measures, saying: “Rather than moderate restructuring measures, we need to implement a strong restructuring plan separating universities that can grow from those that should be closed.”

Student numbers

Inha University’s Kim Jung-ho unveiled recent projections by KCUE’s Research Institute of Higher Education which showed the number of students entering universities decreasing from 460,000 in 2020 to 280,000 by 2040 – a 39.1% decrease.

Kim told the forum that if the government’s student quota remained the same, there “will be 200,000 places left [unfilled] in 2040”.

“Universities had a total student quota of 472,000 in 2021, and we need to cut that to around 250,000 by 2041” based on the projections, said Nam.

The projection trends accord with government figures. Deputy Education Minister Jang Sang-yoon said last November the number of prospective students could decrease to about 170,000 in total or about 320,000 if international students and lifelong adult learners are included.

Another ministry official also predicted that some 30% to 40% of the student quota needed to be reduced.

Statistics released in February by Higher Education in Korea showed that 58 universities among 187 regular four-year degree universities had more than 1% of their student quota left unfilled owing to a failure to recruit enough students.

However, past plans to reduce the student quota have not been effective. According to Higher Education in Korea data, the student quota was 551,317 in 2012 and was reduced by 62,271 to 489,968 until 2017 during the government of then president Park Geun-hye.

The speed of the reduction slowed during the Moon Jae-in government after 2017, falling by only 30,266 until 2022 when the student quota stood at 459,702.

One of the obstacles to reducing the student quota is that universities cannot be easily closed, even if they are insolvent, and mergers are only possible in urban areas where institutions are close to each other.

Around 84 ‘marginal’ universities were this year designated by the government as insolvent and unable to recruit enough students. They rely heavily on government funding, which experts say results in a reduced budget for other universities that are still able to grow.

Inha University’s Nam said closing all marginal universities will not be enough, but he acknowledged that even limited closures will not be easy to implement.

A plan from Japan or beyond?

According to the research team, only 19 universities closed from 2000 onwards, with other universities – so called ‘zombie universities’ – choosing to survive on government funding.

This year, one university in North Gyeongsang province recruited just 62 students via the regular admissions round, filling 10% of its quota of 594 students, the monthly Chosun newspaper reported in April. Another university in Daegu accepted 40 new students via regular admissions to fill just 16% of its quota of 256 students.

Inha University’s Kim pointed to Japan’s “Grand Design for Higher Education toward 2040” as a model, noting that “Japan and Korea have many background similarities [relevant to] restructuring universities. Under this plan Japan had a clear strategy and procedure to close marginal universities, and they also considered that universities need a long time to prepare for closure.”

Japan’s plan included a period of about three years to restructure a university, and a compulsory closure if the university cannot be revived during that period.

Lee Derk-nan, a researcher for the National Assembly Research Service, also referred to lessons from Japan. “We need to have a consistent policy and provide differentiated support, like Japan, depending on the efforts that universities make to revive.”

Park Ki-chan, professor emeritus at Inha University, presented examples from France, the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany of universities selling or utilising properties and facilities as a new business, as part of the process of closing the university.