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[Editorial] Problem in the making

Democratic Party pushes through bill to open energy engineering college as enrollment falls

The ruling Democratic Party of Korea pushed through a special bill on Wednesday to establish an energy engineering college funded mainly by the Korea Electric Power Corp. With the enactment of the special law on the back of its 174-seat majority, the party backed President Moon Jae-in’s 2017 presidential campaign promise.

The passage of the bill came amid sharp criticism that the party did not thoroughly check the legal framework for the college because of the president’s pledge.

Under the special law, the college is scheduled to open within Moon’s term -- that is, before the next presidential election, which falls on March 9, 2022. But nothing is prepared except for the site in Naju, South Jeolla Province. The school is expected to lease facilities from a nearby research institute and use them as temporary classrooms. It is hard to understand how energy engineering education could be so urgent as to justify recruiting students to a school that still has no facilities of its own. The party pushed the bill through, probably for reasons other than education. To woo voters ahead of the next presidential election, the party may have reasoned, it must show them that it is trying to keep its promises.

The shortage of college applicants keeps worsening. It is leading to shocks not only for local colleges, including ones in South Jeolla Province, but also for universities in Seoul and the surrounding province. This phenomenon was anticipated to some extent, due to the ever-shrinking school-age population, but it looks more serious than expected.

The nationwide college enrollment quota for this year is 480,000. The population of students who will be old enough to apply for college admission in 2024 is estimated at 370,000.

Problems due to the shortage of applicants have already come to a head. Bankruptcy crises are hitting universities. University presidents are facing calls to resign. Business in university towns is seeing a slump. These issues were foretold years ago, but the Moon administration and the ruling party did not prepare. And now they are adding a new college without reasonable assurance that it will attract enough students.

South Korea already has five colleges specialized in engineering -- KAIST in Daejeon, POSTECH in Pohang, GIST in Gwangju, DGIST in Daegu and UNIST in Ulsan. These colleges all have energy-related departments. The party should have examined the need for the Kepco college more closely to avoid an overlap of functions.

Kepco’s accumulated debt amounts to 132 trillion won ($117 billion). Its profitability has deteriorated due to an increased emphasis on renewable energy.

The government’s policy to phase out nuclear energy is destroying the ecology of the nation’s energy industry and making it harder for energy engineering students to get jobs. It is absurd that the government is weakening the energy industry on the one hand, while on the other seeking to establish a college that will produce engineers in the field.

Kepco reportedly plans to raise funds for the college by setting aside 3.7 percent of its electricity fees. That is money that should be used to improve Kepco’s profitability or reduce its debt. Eventually, an increase in electricity fees will be inevitable. In short, the ruling party pushed the bill through and the people will bear the burden.

Though Kepco will fund the college, the Democratic Party will likely trumpet it as a school established to fulfill Moon’s pledge.

Early this month, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport unveiled a 560 billion won project to build an expressway to Kaesong in North Korea to show that South Korea is still in compliance with the inter-Korean summit agreement between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. There are already two rarely used roads to the North Korean city. The new road will be a road to highlight Moon. People cannot but ask if this country is for Moon alone.

The party pushed to establish the Kepco engineering college with a special law, just as it sought a special law when pursuing its project to build a new airport on Gadeokdo in Busan. The case for both the airport and the college is unconvincing. Another huge headache after the Gadeokdo airport is in the making.