One of the strange ironies I have working here in South Korea is listening to Americans talk about how amazing South Korean education is (and education in Asia in general) while South Koreans are studying the American models of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s for ways to expand the creativity in the system. Yet, there is one way in which South Korea is just like the US: it has turned to a neo-liberal model of education. A college education in South Korea runs a close second or third to US and the UK (the UK is current below either but that is changing). The testing and student evaluation system is much more explicit here. There is less tenure, particularly for non-ethnic Koreans. While I love my students here, and I love my research: there are many universities in Korea that require a publication a year in a Fordist style points system which, ironically, has led to much more sub-par publications in questionable journals as the incentive system generally does not recognize anything not in print within a one-year contract even if it has been formally accepted. This is no universal, but the factory model of education is dominant in Korea. Furthermore, 80% of Korea’s universities are private and rant with low endowments making them for profit affairs more akin to University of Phoenix than Harvard. Quite a few these universities are still decent: devoted students and good faculty. I don’t want to criticize it too strongly, but there are systemic issues there. Systemic issues that are about the come to massive head.
It has become something of a joke here. At the same time President Obama is lavishly praising South Korea’s education system, South Koreans are heaping criticism on it.
In speeches about America’s relative decline, Mr. Obama has repeatedly singled out South Korea’s relentless educational drive, its high university enrollment, and its steady production of science and engineering graduates as worthy of emulation.
His South Korean counterpart, meanwhile, warns of a glut of university graduates and a work force hard-wired to outdated 20th-century manufacturing skills. “Reckless entrance into college is bringing huge losses to families and the country alike,” said President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea recently.
I am glad I am not the only one who finds this highly, highly ironic. Yet this is the more substantive point:
But with a demographic crisis looming, the government now admits that the expansion has gone too far. “We allowed too many universities to open,” says Sung Geun Bae, director general of South Korea’s education ministry. Mr. Sung points out that his country simultaneously has one of the world’s highest university enrollment rates—and one of the world’s lowest birthrates. “Fifteen years ago we needed all those universities, but times have changed.”
What that means for the nation’s 40 public universities and 400 private colleges is still being debated across the nation, but the writing is on the wall. Education Minister Lee Ju-Ho warns that student enrollment at Korean colleges will plummet by 40 percent in the next 12 years. By 2016 there will already be more university places than high-school graduates, and many institutions will be forced to shut their gates or merge in what is likely to be a very painful downsizing for a nation that reveres education.
“We estimate that by 2040 around 100 universities will have to close,” says Yu Hyunsook, director general of the Korean Educational Development Institute. Ms. Yu points out that the wheels of change have already started to turn; in January, a leading institution, the Seoul National University, will in effect be turned into a business—the first step in a government attempt to give public universities more autonomy and introduce market forces into higher education to make it more competitive.
That move faces resistance from the university’s faculty members, who are concerned that the quality of education will suffer and about their job security, since the change means they will no longer be civil servants employed by the government but employees of the university.
But ultimately it is the huge private sector, which caters to about 80 percent of Korean students, where the pain is likely to be felt most—and the private providers are already under scrutiny. Some are exaggerating their number of students, covering up financial problems, and hiking student fees to unacceptable levels, says Ms. Yu. “Some are paying professors lower salaries than for primary schoolteachers.”
To examine such claims, the South Korean government investigated a randomly chosen selection of 35 private and public universities. It found “habitual” accounting errors over the past five years worth a total of $580-million. Two private institutions, Myungshin University and Sunghwa College in South Korea’s deep south, were ordered shut last month. That is very likely the tip of the iceberg.
My friends who are hiding in the long march through the universities and trying to hide from the economy in the University system: this is beginning to fall apart. South Korea’s problems are quite similar to those coming to the US which has similar demographic problems looming but a bit more ahead in the future. Louis Menand has wrote on this and the distortions of the cold war in the system. Those days are over, my academic comrades. Those days are over.