Half of Korean universities ‘could shut’ as population shrinks

Researcher sees ‘no hope’ for regional institutions in particular, but other academics are less pessimistic

十二月 17, 2021
Korea traditional university graduation ceremony
Source: iStock

Nearly half of South Korea’s universities could close in the next quarter-century as the country’s population continues to shrink, with regional institutions especially hard hit, a professor has warned.

Dong-Kyu Lee, professor in disaster management at Dong-A University, said he expected that only 190 out of 385 existing universities would exist in 25 years’ time. Outside Seoul, where Korea’s most prestigious providers are concentrated, just 44 per cent of universities are expected to remain open, compared with 80 per cent in the capital.

Contracting demographics have already forced some universities to close, particularly outside Seoul.

“At present, I think there is no hope for local universities,” said Professor Lee, adding that almost all those institutions are nearly “100 per cent dependent on college tuition” and deeply vulnerable to declining enrolment.

His report, which was presented at a forum held jointly by the Seoul National University Institute for Social Development and Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, is based on the rate of childbirth in Korea’s regions, university enrolment rates and student numbers in primary and secondary education.

While academics remain divided over just how badly Korea’s demographic crunch will hit its university sector, there is broad agreement that many of the country’s universities will be under threat. And in a sector where 70 per cent of students already pursue higher education, boosting enrolment is no mean feat, academics said.

Professor Lee predicted that the coming years would bring “fierce competition” for full-time academic positions and “unfair recruitment of non-full-time professors” by universities.

Stuart Gietel-Basten, professor of social science and public policy at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and an expert in Asian demography, said that many universities, particularly regional ones, would not be able to stave off closure.

While he acknowledged that the process can be “very traumatic”, he said “it’s inevitable”.

Professor Gietel-Basten likened the process to industrial decline in former boom towns: “It’s like car factories in Detroit – there was nothing there before, then they built all these factories, then they closed down.”

But John Lie, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, expressed confidence that Koreans’ appetite for higher education would buffer the outcome for universities.

“South Koreans are unlikely to recuperate fully from the diploma disease: the desire for educational credentials. This is true not just for students and their parents, but also employers, both private and public,” he said.

Professor Lie took grim predictions with a grain of salt.

“Although there are many mediocre universities in South Korea, it’s very unlikely that anything close to half will close in 25 years, barring a major catastrophe,” he said. “The prognostication is from one academic study, and vatic pronouncements from academics rarely come true.”

David Tizzard, assistant professor in Korean studies at Seoul Women’s University, saw a glass half full in the situation.

“I’m not sure that it will play out quite as badly as some numbers predict,” he said, adding that “Korea is a country that has survived colonialism, civil war, brutal military dictatorships, and a compressed modernisation”.

Dr Tizzard suggested that the coming change “might actually be good” for a country where, for the past few decades, “virtually everyone was sent to university, regardless of their aptitude or interest”.

“Perhaps this might be a way to demonstrate to citizens that people can have value in whatever career or path they choose,” he said.




  • 注册是免费的,而且十分便捷
  • 注册成功后,您每月可免费阅读3篇文章
  • 订阅我们的邮件
Please 登录 or 注册 to read this article.


Reader's comments (2)

I agree with the half-full idea. Social change like this demographic issue will bring challenges, and serious ones. On the other hand, one way that South Korea will almost certainly need to adapt is to loosen immigration. Having a highly homogeneous society (eg, ethnically, culturally) is good in some ways. Social cohesion is relatively high. But it has become clear that the entire human species can only survive very long into the future if we better understand that the serious threats that we face do not respect national boundaries (eg, climate destruction, the risk of nuclear catastrophe—by accident or war). That requires cooperation, and such cooperation in turn requires that we know different kinds of people, giving us a better chance to truly understand the idea that we are all “brothers and sisters.” Our future is deeply intertwined. Consider my own country, the United States. (I now live in Taiwan and have been here for 13 years.) The US suffers internal conflict and serious problems: eg, racial conflict, high crime rates, and high rates of poverty in a very rich country (wealth and income inequality). On the other hand, the US also enjoys many benefits as a highly ethnically diverse society. Although racial/ethnic injustice and conflict remain problematic, we have, from another perspective, learned how to live together and often to enjoy and appreciate different kinds of people. I think we can at least say this with some certainty: Virtually all Americans today accept the fact that we are a diverse/multiethnic/multicultural society, and will remain one. By contrast, many European/other “Western” countries are more “socially progressive” in many ways, but are generally more hostile toward “outsiders.” This seems even more true in many or perhaps all East Asian nations. My own beliefs are that, in general, social well-being, reduction of suffering, greater stability, and—as I’ve said—probably human survival itself, depends on ordinary people thinking and talking together, organizing around our common interests, and pushing against the rich and powerful to influence social policy. The universities are increasingly operating like corporations: inclined to focus more and more on the interests of a small number of administrators and owners at the top, more and more connected with and aligned with big business, and less concerned with the good of the wider society. (For example, cooperating together and with directors that sit on corporate boards, etc., in order to offer lower pay, fewer benefits, and less security to professors/instructors and other staff.) Education is largely financed by ordinary working people, one way or the other. We must fight so that the benefits of education are fairly distributed. Education should be a public good, not a private one. It’s worth thinking about: How South Koreans can continue to maintain the best of their shared values, retain and enjoy and honor and share the best of their culture and identity while also embracing and adapting to others. Not simple. But maybe in another way, as a fundamental goal, maybe it is simple.
I much prefer the East Asian (and East European) model of maintaining ethnically homogeneous societies despite the demographic transition. Perhaps adult education is a way forward for the higher education sector there. It might lead to a revival of interest in the humanities. The USA, France and England by contrast are scarcely unitary nations any more these days, but simply states in which fragments of different nations compete for resources, with limited ideas of a common good to bring them together and elections that are more an ethnic headcount than a contest of ideas.