Korea has one of the world’s highest rates of high school students going on to higher education. But the low birthrate is forcing a steady decrease in the number of students who enter colleges and universities.
Government officials estimate that the number of high school graduates will decrease from 630,000 this year to 530,000 in 2019 and 390,000 in 2023. That means that if the number of freshman openings at higher learning institutions, which now stands at 560,000, remains at the current level, many colleges and universities would be unable to fill their openings.
This grim prospect alone necessitates urgent reform of the nation’s education system, especially that of higher learning. Some colleges and universities have already been shut down in recent years due to financial difficulties. In addition, this is the time when a nation’s global competitiveness is determined by the standard of its higher learning institutions.
All things considered, the government is moving in the right direction to draw up a package of policy programs to overhaul the nation’s higher education system. President Park Geun-hye rightfully used her visit to Switzerland last week to emphasize the importance of reforming Korean education. She specifically called for expansion of vocational education. We could not agree more with her. As one example, the rate of Swiss high school graduates going on to college stands at 29 percent, compared with Korea’s 71 percent.
Curbing Koreans’ excessive passion for college education should be the first step to expand vocational training and make Korean education as a whole more competitive internationally. Prime Minister Chung Hong-won was well advised when he said last week that college restructuring was a “task of the times” that could not be delayed any longer.
“It is important to restructure colleges and universities and raise the standard of education if we are to take the lead in the increasingly fierce international competition,” he said.
Officials said the college reform package, to be announced soon, would include, among other things, plans to cut the number of students at colleges and universities across the country.
The reform plan is already drawing keen attention from those who will be affected by it. There are already signs of conflict among them as all concerned parties want to protect their own vested interests. The conflicts of interest would vary, depending on whether they would pit colleges in the Seoul metropolitan area against those in the provinces, national and public universities against private schools and four-year institutions against two- to three-year schools.
Policymakers should not be swayed by those who are bent on protecting their vested interests and come up with broad, effective measures.