South Korea’s higher education participation rate is one of the highest in the world, driven by the promise that studying at university will bring increased wealth and status.
But what happens when the growth in the number of graduates outstrips the expansion of the job market? With 69 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds in the country having been to university, and technological change making career paths even more unpredictable, one university president has argued that students and parents need to “reset” their expectations of the impact that getting a degree can have.
Yeon-Cheon Oh, president of the University of Ulsan, told Times Higher Education that while many families’ definitions of success revolved around “more money, Wall Street and London’s financial market”, only a “small number” of graduates could attain such goals. Relying on such a narrow conception of success was “not possible” in the 21st century because many graduate jobs were becoming automated, according to Professor Oh, who warned that thinking in such a way would lead only to “frustration”.
“Parents’ and students’ minds should be reset – their expectations and their way of thinking for the future,” Professor Oh said. “Society’s supply capacity is diminishing while demand for the future from the students’ and parents’ side is the same as before. There must be some disparity.”
The frustration felt by young South Koreans if they fall short of their goals can only be heightened by the intense struggles they go through to win places at the country’s top universities, which are so well known that they were the subject last year of a feature film, Reach for the Sky.
Professor Oh, who served as president of Seoul National University from 2010 to 2014, argued that South Korea would have a “healthier” society if its “basic value system” was expanded to recognise good citizenship, self-autonomy and self-reliance as things that were worth graduates aiming for, as well as financial success.
“Good students with ambition [could] join an elementary school as teachers; why [don’t] they…go there?” Professor Oh asked. “Medical doctors who graduate from Seoul National University, they can work for local villages, for communities. Now they [are seen as] failures as doctors if they work in local villages.
“We should change our value system. Without a changing value system, there is no solution.”
The disparity between expectations and reality is a problem not only for students and their families, Professor Oh explained. Discontent over the financial returns on a degree had led many parents to question why tuition fees were so high, compared with the anticipated returns, he said, and politicians had often opted to support these concerns, leading to restrictions on fee increases and financial difficulties for institutions.
In particular, Professor Oh argued that private universities should receive government support to cover their running costs, in order to help them meet the growing demand for higher education in South Korea.
Ulsan is a private institution that was for much of its early history supported by the Hyundai companies, which are based in the region, but that support is now declining. At the moment, private universities can apply only for project-specific government grants and are “suffering” as a result, Professor Oh said.
“There is no big difference between national and private universities; function and expectation are the same, but the funding structures are totally different,” he said. “I think [we need] reform of the higher education financial system. I think the difference between private and national universities in funding should be reduced.”
Professor Oh said that such reforms were vital if South Korea’s universities were to continue to develop and, ultimately, catch up with the leading higher education systems of the Western world. But he acknowledged that such changes would be difficult in a society where everyone had a view on how universities should operate.
“If we successfully reform our system, we can catch up with and we can pass the Western [universities]; otherwise we may face a difficult situation,” Professor Oh said. “Korea is a democratic society and its political system is very diverse: in one sense our country is a model country for democracy; on the other hand, it is hard to make drastic reform.”