The Ministry of Education announced that 2020 will mark the start of a significant reversal in Korean education: the college-age population, for the first time, has fallen short of the total university enrollment quota and will continue to decline. This trend, based on future population projections by the National Statistics Office, stems from various causes that merit analysis on their own and carries sweeping social implications that will shape Korean education in the years to come.
The Current Extent of the Situation
The college-age population - a group composed of high school seniors, graduates (retakers), and other examinees - that took the 2019 college entrance exam for the 2020 academic year was 479,376, which is 17,842 less than the previous year. However, the total enrollment quota for the 2020 school year was 485,318, a figure that outnumbers the college-age population of 479,376 by 5,942. The declining college-age population, in other words, has created a “dead cross” phenomenon in which the college-age population seeking admissions fails to match the total number of students universities hope to have enrolled. The year 2020 is marking this important reversal, and it is predicted that if this trend continues into 2021, which it most certainly will, the college-age population will decrease by 76,325, and by 2024, as many as 124,000 seats of the total enrollment quota will be left unfilled. Anna Kim, a Professor at Ewha Women’s University College of Education, explained that the predicted amount of decline theoretically corresponds to about 40 universities in Seoul closing down. Meanwhile, some parents and prospective university students have latched onto the misguided belief that a declining college-age population would result in lower competition rates and an easing of university entrance barriers. Professor Kim stated that although the reduced pool of applicants creates vacancies in enrollment quotas as a whole, the competition rate for students hoping to enter universities in Seoul will not be alleviated. “This is due to the deepening of university hierarchy and the growing difficulties for college graduates in finding employment in light of industrial changes brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. These have dramatically raised the perceived value of graduating from a university with higher name-value,” she said. Causes of Reversal
On a fundamental level, surplus seats in the university enrollment quotais the result of the gradual but consistent population decline that Korea has come to cope with since the early 2000s. The 2020 reversal, in this sense, is the result not of a sudden population shift but 20 years of the cumulative impact of falling birth rates. The reduction in the college enrollment rate has also had a partial effect, Professor Kim added. She explained, “the college enrollment rate now hovers around 70 percent, but that number used to be as high as 80 percent in 2007. Although, 70 percent is still an extremely high number globally, a simultaneous decrease in the college-age population and the college enrollment rate is causing a profound change that no entity can fully grasp the future extent of.”
Government’s University Restructuring Policies
There have been ongoing attempts, with vast differences between implementing administrations, to conduct nation-wide university assessments as a direct tool for cutting universities’ enrollment quotas. Former President Lee Myung-bak conducted the Government Financial Assistance Assessment based on five quantified criteria – employment rate, student recruitment rate, fulltime faculty acquisition rate, education cost rate, and academic management and curriculum – and decided financial support restrictions. Government’s financial aid and student loans were refused once a university was selected, and later analysis showed that the plan was intended to indirectly control university finances and forcibly remove universities of poor quality through ‘market logic’. This was replaced by the Park Geun-hye administration’s University Structure Reform Assessment, which placed compulsory quota cuts and financial support restrictions by evaluating and placing universities in five different categories. Shin Hyun-seok, a Professor in Korea University Department of Education, elucidated that this could be seen as the government conducting structural reform of universities in a compulsory manner, an approach that was widely criticized for imposing standardized evaluation criteria without consideration of the characteristics of each university and regions of their roots. “Because universities are lined up in a single row and strictly evaluated with identical indices, local universities in objectively poorer conditions receive far lower scores than ones in Seoul. This drives their accumulation in lower ranks, and their eventual disappearance,” he noted. While the previous reform was aimed at cutting the total number by 24,000 students, the 2018 University Basic Competency Assessment introduced by the Moon Jae-in administration recommends university enrollment quotas to be reduced by 10,000 by 2021, for universities placed in lower 40th percentile. The diagnosis is divided by districts, a step taken to assuage criticisms over the policy’s potential for regional discrimination. In this assessment, universities are placed into five categories: Self-Improvement University, Capacity Building University, Universities Excluded from Diagnosis, and Universities Restricted from Financial Support (Types 1 and 2). While Self-Improvement Universities are neither required to cut their number of students nor restricted in their access to governmental financial support, Capacity Building Universities are recommended to reduce enrollment quotas up to a certain point and are subject to a partial cut-down in financial aid. Universities in the latter categories are also urged to cut quotas, to cope with an overall reduction in financial aid and either a partial or a full withdrawal of national scholarship support. Professor Shin stated that this policy’s focus on university autonomy signifies an important shift, in the sense that it simply recommends universities to, without force, autonomously reduce their enrollment quota once designated in the last four categories. Professor Anna Kim explained that behind this policy shift was a realization that standardized assessment and artificial reduction in enrollment quotas are virtually meaningless in light of rapid social changes, especially population decline. “The government has come to realize over time that respecting university autonomy is important, as the impact of change is too great to handle through mere government intervention. Even the current policy emphasizes autonomy but tends to evaluate universities uniformly. The government is issuing too many guidelines for universities to follow, even when it was supposed to help them improve their competencies on their own,” she asserted. Park Joo-ho, a Professor of Hanyang University College of Education, stated that government-imposed cuts in the enrollment quota easily creates backlash as the reduction directly corresponds to a loss in a university’s financial resources. At stake are also issues of regional economy and political stability on which many livelihoods depend. In order to minimize the side effects of artificial structural reforms, the government seems to have incorporated the concept of university autonomy in its current educational policy. Park explained, “Political color of administrations clearly influences the scope and rigidness of policies they put forth during their term. Conservative administrations hope to focus governmental financial resources in quality universities, saving ones that are deemed competitive by the government standard, which is believed to have increased competitiveness of Korean universities on a global level. On the other hand, liberal administrations reckon that it is not right to save only competitive universities but to respect the autonomy of each institution based on consideration of their individual characteristics and locations.”
Different Reactions Among Universities to Meet the Criteria of the University Basic Competency Diagnosis
While the 2018 University Basic Competency Assessment was introduced as a response to the criticism of previous college structural reform evaluations, it has been discovered that universities have still yet to show agreement on its effectiveness. As the type of university and location will affect how the bill will be applied, stakeholders have different preferences and reactions to it. A distinct difference is shown in the way the response is handled between local universities and universities in Seoul, large four-year universities and two-year colleges, private universities and public universities; this has sparked debates on the practicality of the new plan. Lim Eun-hui, a Researcher from the Korea Higher Education Research Institute(KHEI), explained that “Although the new college restructuring plan claims self-regulation of the university quota cut, the government has expanded the student enrollment rate criteria to 20 percent of the university’s basic competency evaluation criteria, in case of poor educational reform if left entirely to their own freedom.” Lim inferred that universities that are confident about filling natural enrollment rates would not reduce their quota as much as universities that are less confident in achieving the same evaluation criteria. Four-year universities in Seoul, including Hanyang University, are showing positive responses to the fact that the recruitment rate required by the criteria for the basic college competency evaluation tends to be naturally met by applicants’ preference for universities in the Seoul metropolitan area; however they are not completely free from the challenge of changing educational paradigms caused by the demographic cliff. On the other hand, the prediction for local universities is that if the 120,000 college-age population shrinks by 2024 it would be their burden and they will be directly affected by the low enrollment rate due to students’ preference for universities in Seoul; from this, it can be seen that there is a “temperature difference” (here referred to as, an expression of difference in how universities are feeling against the current new educational reform) between universities with different locations and types. The main issue in this debate is that the ministry’s goal is to improve educational conditions by advising universities to match a qualifying criterion that includes assessments of buildings, scholarships, number of courses, full-time instructors, and enrollments, and whether these areas are being met by an aimless quota in some universities. According to Lim, “It is clearly a problem for universities that are focused on obtaining good evaluation grades rather than improving the educational environment and capabilities on their own.” She added, “Why the conflict between the educational improvement and desire to get good evaluation grades occurs is that even in the same educational environment, the score is higher when 50 people utilize something than when 100 people do.” Her claim pinpoints the phenomena of universities choosing not to enhance the quality of their educational environment when utilized by 100 students, which is an exemplified statistic, but rather reducing the number of students while neglecting the goal of improving educational conditions. According to the collected result of the universities’ structural reform assessment released by the Higher Education in Korea (HEK) website, also known as Daehak-Alimi in Korean, the decreased enrollment rate in 16 percent of universities in rural areas doubled that of four-year universities located in Seoul which was eight percent. This implies that local universities and colleges chose the quota cut as a way to survive in competition with four-year colleges in central areas that were comparably more competitive in student enrollment rates. Lim added that in addition to the quota reduction, central universities also set the index by increasing the education hours of full-time professors or by changing small classes into large-scale lectures.
The Effects on Communities and Young People in the Wake of Local University Closings
South Korea has a nearly 70 percent college entrance rate which is one of the highest rates in the world; in fact, when adding the significant number of students that are retaking the college entrance exam, the exact number is higher. While critics criticize that the unconditional decision to enter college is a social waste, the truly unsolved problem lies in the way Korean society values high academic achievements and prestigious university graduates. Given the prevalent idea in Korea that the first job largely determines one’s quality of life and the fact that workplaces with good working conditions prefer college graduates, among students, there is the dominant narrative that entering college is a “must” rather than a “should”. An alternative solution to the social waste issue is to transform local universities into lifelong education institutions for adult learners. A scheme called the Innovation for Lifelong Education and Job Training by the Ministry of Education aims at fostering basic skills necessary to transition through many jobs throughout one’s life. Its purpose is to enable job seekers to stay flexible in the face of continuously changing job fields and industrial needs due to social changes such as the low birthrate and the aging population. Advocates welcome the transformation of local universities that are in danger of closing as there are many people past their twenties but still yearn for education and self-actualization as well as those that desire further development through professional training. From the perspective of local communities, university facilities have greater merits as they contribute in revitalizing the local economy. Nonetheless, opponents are skeptical about the necessity for transformation as they see no difference between existing community centers that provide various educational programs and lifelong job training and universities. In this vein, experts highlight the importance of establishing lifelong education institutions in the way they provide high quality and practical education so they can be differentiated from community centers. If not, the money-spinner-oriented method could draw backlash for attracting students without a well-organized educational system and infrastructure.
How Korean Universities’ Challenge to Adapt to the Demographic Cliff Should Be Handled
As mentioned earlier, while several models are presented, they all have different effects depending on the characteristics of the region and the university. This implies that there is no definite solution. However, there should be a measure to strengthen the legal standards based on educational conditions along with consideration of the region and to induce a natural reduction in the number of students and an increase in quality of education.