Go to contents

[Opinion] Higher Education Troubles

Posted August. 26, 2006 03:22,   


Universities in Korea face a new type of challenge caused by low fertility rates, which largely explains the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development’s decision to cut the number of undergraduates by as many as 50,000 over the next three years. In Japan, too, a smaller number of students go on to earn bachelor’s degrees every year because of falling birth rates, 1.25. For instance, universities in Fukuoka and Hiroshima have decided to close down due to the decreasing number of applicants. Some institutions even went into bankruptcy because “they could not repay debts” with insufficient revenues from fewer students.

Forty percent of Japanese universities fail to reach their target number of enrolled students. Reportedly, next year will be a “historical year” in that the number of applicants will exactly match the aggregate target of enrolled students. It is a tectonic change from a time when Japan’s undergraduate admissions were characterized by overemphasis on academic background, extremely fierce competition to pass university entrance exams, and high school graduates who study for more than a year to go to prestigious schools. As a neighbor, which has shared most of the social phenomena, it is a truly rare experience for Korea to observe such a change in Japan’s education. The Japanese government extends assistance to students who transfer so that it can minimize the fallout from the closedowns and consolidations among schools.

All of these trends show what is happening in Japan where as many as five universities are among the world’s 100 top universities, including the University of Tokyo, according to Newsweek. Then, what is happening at Korean universities, none of which are among the top 100? Even the absorption of unsuccessful colleges by universities runs into stubborn resistance from professors whose departments will disappear amid the consolidation. Though they acknowledge that consolidation is the only viable solution, they resist it with all their might in order to not lose “their jobs.” Kwansei Gakuin University and Seiwa College, two of Japan’s prestigious private institutions, may be fine examples for those professors to follow. Though they are two completely separate schools, they plan to consolidate their admissions processes into a single procedure within two years.

In contrast, those in Korea’s higher education system seem quite indifferent to trends in a time of low birth rates. Education majors protest the closing or consolidation of colleges of education even when the primary school age population is shrinking. Moreover, they are fighting against the possibility of lowering the limit to education majors and the number of teachers. The Korean Teachers and Educational Worker’s Union demands more jobs for teachers citing “a variety of small chores and the five-day work week” even in the face of the declining number of middle and high school students, while refusing to accept an evaluation system of teachers. Observers cannot help but wonder whether their position is intentional or not. One thing clear is that their attitude is not something people with common sense would expect from educators.

Kim Chung-sik, Editorial Writer, skim@donga.com