The higher education sector in Korea: What you see is not always what you get


On any day in South Korea, approximately one quarter of the population of 50m is studying, from kindergarten through graduate school. In 1945 less than a quarter of the school-age population was in elementary school. Almost 70 years later, that percentage is over 99% and has been so for a decade. This is fed by government policies and family expectations.

Korea has education fever but there is a price to pay for this epidemic: evidence of unresolved issues that challenge the sustainability of growth in the sector. While the Korean HE sector has experienced a tremendous rate of expansion over the last five decades, the overall quality of teaching, graduates and research has not improved at any comparable rate.

In Korea today there are some 376 official HE institutions that support 3.7m students and 60,000+ academic staff. This includes 179 private four-year universities, 43 national universities, polytechnics, cyber-universities and other types. Two-year and three-year Junior colleges number 149, with a student population of 770,000 and 12,500 faculty. In 1970 there were 160 HE institutions serving about 200,000 students.

Although Korean HE institutions are well known domestically, they do not hold significant world rankings and are not household names in the manner of Ivy League schools. Korea has its top 20 and the top three universities are referred to as ‘SKY’, for Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University. Korean students compete for placements based on rankings more so than the quality of the programmes. In Korea, it is important to know the university from which someone has graduated. This alumni connection influences employment opportunities.

 

Seoul                                                                Seoul National University 

Korea occupies rather extreme positions in relation to OECD averages: it has the highest education costs borne by households and one of the lowest government spending rates in the sector; it has the third-highest tuition fees and the second-lowest level of government investment in scholarships, loans and grants; it has the highest transition rates from secondary into tertiary education of any country and the lowest happiness rates for students. These extremes are the sticks and rubber bands that the government glosses over with well-funded programmes that do not appear designed to have any impact.

An example of this glossy approach is the ‘World Class University’ (WCU) project, financed by the government at over $15.3m and launched in 2008. The project invites international scholars and Nobel laureates to collaborate with Korean faculty members and establish new academic programmes in science and technology. The intention is to enhance the competence of Korean universities up to world-class standards, which would also move Korean universities up the world rankings. Many of the WCU scholars are paid significantly more than their Korean counterparts which creates controversy. There are examples of foreign scholars leaving Korea well before the end of their contract, including one Nobel laureate.

What does internationalisation look like in Korea?

In HE internationalisation, what you do not find in Korea is as informative as what you do. Missing are significant numbers of foreign schools and programmes, and foreign staff and students. Korea has a lot of ground to cover to catch up with other competitive education models, infrastructure, regulations, policies and academic pathways supporting higher education.

It is difficult to gauge what international means under Korean leadership and management. It can be window dressing in some cases, and having an international (anglophone) education carries questionable value if the graduate is focused on the domestic job market. One growth area in the last five years is the emergence of ‘Global MBA’ programmes taught in English by foreign faculty. It is only recently that 1+1 and 2+2 agreements have become part of the vernacular. There is no evidence yet that Korean graduates of these programmes are globally competitive or that the foreign graduates have an advantage within or outside Korea.

Such activity pales in comparison to the tens of thousands of MoUs that Korean universities sign and publicise with foreign universities. As they are everywhere, MoUs are often a photo opportunity and an exercise in ‘one-upmanship’ against domestic institutions. It is doubtful that MoUs are exercised as part of any internationalisation strategy for a particular Korean HE institution.

The hidden ‘international’ elements within Korean higher education

It is difficult to discern the impact of the foreign doctorates that constitute more than 1/3 of Korean faculty. The HE sector remains steadfastly Korean in nature. Having a foreign PhD is acceptable as part of the necessary qualifications for an academic job, but once back in Korea there is no evidence that the international experience is regarded as valuable.

Korea has about 5000 foreign academics with PhDs employed in the HE sector and has been sending Korean scholars abroad for more than 45 years to obtain foreign qualifications. One of the benchmarks of an academic career, Promotion and Tenure, has remained elusive within the foreign academic population.

Korea also has a tradition of high school students going abroad for a semester, summer program or longer academic experiences to improve their English-language abilities. It is not unusual to hear a variety of English-language accents from a class of Korean university students, many of whom have attended English-speaking high schools outside of Korea. All Korean students learn the English language from 3rd grade in elementary school. This collective capital will be channelled into standardised national test results commencing in 2012.

Where are the foreign students in the Higher Education sector?

Another gap in Korean internationalisation is the volume of foreign students imported to balance the education exodus. In 2010, Korea exported more than 250,000 students to predominantly English-speaking countries, and only half are expected to return. As brain drain gains momentum, foreign student enrolments for 2010 in Korean HE institutions peaked at less than 85,000. At the university level, international students in Korea means mainly Chinese, who dominate this demographic.


The Korean government has often talked of relaxing visa restrictions to encourage more inward traffic but there is no evidence of these changes. But there is a disconnection between that intention and restrictions applied to foreign graduates seeking employment in Korea. Korea is not the first place foreign students think of when considering a quality education, academic destination or international pathway to a global career. 

Current problems in the HE sector

Korea has economic and demographic problems that will impact the HE sector in the next decade. As the bloated HE sector is now forced to reconcile a declining market, extremely low government spending and questions about quality, key issues are clearly identified.

In many affluent economies, low fertility rates can be a symptom of lifestyle choices. The low fertility rate in Korea is more a reflection of financial reality, cultural expectations and lack of gender equity. The fertility rate dropped from 4.5 children per family in the 1970s to 1.2 in 2010.  Despite equal access to education, women have the lowest earning potential and suffer the most under the male-dominated workplace culture. If a woman takes a leave of absence from work to care for children, she is penalised in earnings and career potential.

Low fertility in Korea could also reflect the pressure of education expenses. These consume 48% of the average family income while a child is in university. Government spending on HE is low and there are few loans and grants. Families have to pay. A consequence of low fertility is that the number of HE institutions is expected to decrease over the next 15 years.

The HE sector and the government

The educated population has been the engine for Korea’s rapid economic growth. But the government acknowledges that graduates are not globally competitive and is introducing reforms. Some reforms are drastic in their measures to hold accountable targetted institutions, rather than providing funding for performance-enhancing projects as with the WCU project. This issue frequently makes media headlines and is reported in the Korea Times, Korean Herald and the English editions of local papers. New spending is in the name of the ‘knowledge economy’, but many HE institutions complain of an unfair concentration of these government resources instead of a balanced development plan between institutions. Academics and government officials accuse each other of a lack of understanding in a circular debate the surfaces every few months in the media.

The government has recently demanded better management practices, coupled with the threat of closures if institutions fail to comply. The bottom 15% of the 38 state-run universities have been named as destined for the chopping block which follows an earlier decision to target 43 private universities as well. Issues of concern include the elections of university Presidents that lacked objective oversight and in the case of the public universities, the waste of taxes through bad management. The proposed reforms have led to resignations in protest and a scramble by administrators to implement transparent policies for foreign student management, scholarship programmes, updated curricula and career development services.

What are the plans for the future?

According to the Korean Council for University Education, every two years all 4-year member universities are now required to complete a self-assessment for compliance, a process designed to implement a quality framework conforming to international standards. Some of these standards include autonomy, professional development for faculty, and consistent accreditation policies and criteria. These actions in combination with the measures taken by the government to overhaul underperforming institutions does provide some logic for improving the quality of faculty, students and institutions. For the first time in five decades, Korean HE institutions are being forced to acknowledge market forces as an antidote to the fallacy that when something is valuable, having more makes it better.


Songdo and international branch campuses

Korea plans to bring foreign branch campuses and tens of thousands of international students to the Incheon Free Economic Zone near Incheon airport. Other sites are planned at tertiary and secondary school levels.

After more than a year of media stories of a number of American campuses coming to to Korea, it now appears that State University of New York (SUNY) will open in March 2012 and George Mason University in September 2012. Ghent University likewise plans to open its doors for enrolment. In March 2011, Yonsei University from Seoul opened a ‘Global Campus’ in Songdo. The idea is for students to obtain a ‘globalised education’ without having to go abroad.
There is still no sign of increased levels of Government spending in the HE sector in terms of infrastructure or comprehensive financial options being offered to reduce the burden for education costs carried by individual households. There is no evidence of radical changes to regulations that would make it easier for foreign-born students to be integrated into the HE sector.

 

Incheon1

                                   Incheon Economic Free Zone: They'll probably still charge fees

How likely is the government to succeed? Elections in 2012 are approaching and education always generates standard promises for reduced costs and greater investment in infrastructure. With unemployment rates inching upwards, students protesting tuition costs, and the government threatening to close Korean universities while at the same time bringing in foreign branch campuses, the political context for the success of these initiatives is becoming tense.


Korea will nonetheless succeed in its endeavours to be globally competitive in higher education. This will not be planned in a way that others might recognise; reforms and change tend to be reactive and crisis-based, with extremes in stress and pressure countered by tenacity and a slavish commitment to the task. There will be the irony of inefficiencies and low productivity creating high-quality products in a competitive environment – ie, all of the traits that have built the HE sector into the engine that it is today. Meaningful change will come when the industrial sector is more creative and critical in its thinking. Until that sector reacts, higher education will continue to be the feeder channel for employment and social status that it has always been.

Zen Parry

Lecturer in Entrepreneurship, SolBridge International School of Business, Korea
zparry@solbridge.ac.kr


Shin Hae Lee, Research Assistant, SolBridge International School of Business