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[Editorial] Tuition wars

Three hundred representatives of student unions staged demonstrations at Seoul’s Gwanghwamun intersection Sunday. “Cut tuition by half, provide jobs for us,” the students chanted, as they were taken to police stations. On Monday, the national association of universities and colleges held an executive council meeting to demand that the government drastically expand financial support for their schools before asking for lower tuition fees.

In the National Assembly, strategists of parties are racking their brains on how much money would be needed to implement their tuition cut schemes. It is most likely that at least 500 billion won ($460 million) will be requested as supplementary budget for this purpose during the June session.

Between them, the opposition Democratic Party is complaining of “plagiarism” by the Grand National Party on the university tuition issue, as the former had raised it first as part of its welfare expansion initiatives. The GNP’s new floor leader Hwang Woo-yea chased it with his own “half tuition program” last week. The title was changed to the milder “tuition reduction,” due to objections from the more prudent administration.

Tuition cut is one of the most attractive campaign pledges as parties go to the parliamentary and presidential elections next year. There are about 3.5 million students attending 200 four-year universities and 150 junior colleges, plus millions of parents who are now and will be sending their children to those schools. A recent opinion survey show 58 percent in favor of a tuition cut within the given budget and another 19 percent supporting it even at the risk of fiscal deficits.

To politicians, 2 to 4 trillion won, or about 1 percent of annual government spending, may look affordable. But that much money cannot be extracted from the national budget without causing serious strain on other welfare programs such as the expansion of child care and relief for poor, elderly people.

There certainly are a large number of voters who will appreciate an instant reduction of the cost of higher education. Yet, a larger portion of the electorate will be thinking of other priorities in public welfare and the bigger picture of education considering the adequacy of the present size and quality of higher learning.

The GNP’s initial scheme offers differentiated subsidizing of schools depending on the financial and academic viability of institutions. This could entail extensive restructuring of schools, primarily affecting private colleges and universities, especially those in the provinces. Of the 159 private institutions across the country, 77 or nearly half were unable to fill their enrollment quotas this year.

Shortsighted political approaches are feared to put the nation’s higher education system into further confusion. Parties, education authorities and university operators need to pool their wisdom to find feasible programs to ease students’ burdens. University foundations need to use more of their resources as the government provides broader scholarship support.