Students take to the streets over South Korea's fees

Rallies, vigils and strikes greet government efforts to 'halve' tuition costs. John Morgan reports

June 16, 2011

Credit: Reuters
Flame of discontent: Governing party's fees stance has tried students' patience

When South Korea's governing party revived a plan to "halve" tuition fees and supply extra public funding for students, it might have expected a warm welcome from an education-focused society with one of the highest university participation rates in the world. Instead, it served only to exacerbate existing discontent over high fees.

Small student rallies and candlelit vigils began in central Seoul in late May, with some participants shaving their heads in protest. The numbers were then swelled by parents, civic leaders, opposition politicians and a smattering of celebrities.

Students from about 400 institutions joined a strike last week, taking to the streets instead of attending classes.

In another bout of unrest, students at Seoul National University - the nation's most prestigious institution - have staged an occupation in protest at plans to give the university autonomy from state control.

Protesters believe the move, aimed at enhancing the university's global competitiveness, will lead to greater "commercialisation" and higher fees.

Education matters

It is no surprise that these issues are headline news in South Korea, a nation where more than 80 per cent of young people enter higher education, and where educational status and social status are often explicitly linked.

The fees controversy can be traced back to 2007 when Lee Myung-bak, South Korea's current president, put forward a plan for so-called "half-price tuition" during his election campaign (now described by his party as an "alleviation" of fees rather than an actual halving).

South Korea has the second-highest fees among members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, behind only the US.

The nation's average fee is $8,519 (£5,203) at private institutions - which account for 80 per cent of provision - and $4,717 at public universities, according to OECD figures adjusted for purchasing-power parity.

After Mr Lee's election, the subsidised tuition idea dropped off the agenda. But in May it was revived by key figures in his conservative Grand National Party (GNP).

Many commentators attributed the renewed interest to the governing party's fear of defeat in next year's parliamentary and presidential elections.

But some in the GNP objected to the "populist" move, leaving the policy hanging in the balance.

The delays were too much for students at Korea University, Sogang University, Sookmyung Women's University and Ewha Woman's University, who said they would mount a joint one-day strike and join protesters in Seoul.

"Although some students shaved their heads and went on a hunger strike to urge the Lee Myung-bak administration to abide by its campaign pledge for half-priced college tuition, the government is still acting in a deceptive manner," the students from the four private institutions said in a joint statement.

The GNP's plan targets students from lower-income households, offering discounts for the bottom 50 per cent - but only for those students whose grade-point average breaches a threshold level.

Opposition parties, led by the Democratic Party, want to give subsidies regardless of household income. They claim that the GNP's plan would cover only 25 per cent of students, and say the budget the party has earmarked for the scheme is inadequate.

Unintended consequences

Any move by South Korea to boost public subsidy would buck the trend elsewhere in the developed world, where most nations are cutting public investment in higher education and increasing fees.

But such a policy could lead to problems. Reporting on a recent legislators' debate, the Yonhap News Agency said: "Some worried that providing financial support equally for all colleges could hamper the government's efforts to kick out the uncompetitive institutions from the nation's bloated higher education sector."

Increasing competitiveness was also the government's aim in December when it passed legislation allowing Seoul National to adopt "incorporated" (autonomous) status from 2012. Earlier this month, students objecting to the plan staged an occupation of the institution's main administrative building in a bid to force a dialogue with its president, Oh Yeon-cheon.

When that failed, they publicised his mobile phone number.

"There are concerns that tuition fees will go up and it will also make students neglect non-commercial academic fields, such as the humanities, because the university would become a business-oriented organisation," the university's student council said.

The student activists earned a stern rebuke in a Korea Herald editorial, which pointed out that Seoul National was "way behind" the world's best universities in global rankings despite its good domestic reputation.

"The university needs to be freed from the fetters of government control and interference if it is to become more competitive in education and research," the newspaper said.

When it comes to fees, the GNP may be nervous about student feeling. Sustained, often violent, student protests helped topple authoritarian regimes in the country in the 1960s and 1980s. In a nation that prizes higher education, students could once again carry political weight.

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