[Part5]SOUTH KOREA: Pink slip handed to 'bad universities'

photo:Hiroyuki Kodera

The government of South Korea wants to shut down universities that cannot attract enough students. As a result, universities and colleges in South Korea are now merging and reorganizing as they fight for survival.

The birthrate in South Korea is declining even faster than in rapidly aging Japan. The number of new graduates from high school may soon not be enough to meet annual enrollment targets set up by each university.

Drastic measures are under way as the country grapples with the question of how to maintain the number and quality of its institutes of higher education.

Gachon University in Seongnam, Gyeonggi province, has about 20,000 students. It used to be four different schools, each with their own campus.

In 2006, Gachon Gil University merged with Gachon Medical School. This was followed in 2007 by a merger between Kyungwon College and Kyungwon University, with the new institution also called Kyungwon University. The two new entities then merged in 2012 and the modern Gachon University was born.

Just as with corporate mergers, these small to midsized establishments had joined forces stay afloat in an age when universities are fighting for their lives.

“Our goal is to use the money saved through rationalization to attract the best professors, build the best learning environment and raise the university’s prestige,” says Paik Seung-woo, a professor in charge of university reform.

This philosophy is on display at the Gachon Hawaii Global Center, a language school in Honolulu that comes with furnished dormitories and a swimming pool. A short-term one-month course there comes to 3.5 million won (350,000 yen, or $3,350). The cost, which includes school fees and air tickets, is shouldered by the university.

The center is a clear example of the university’s businesslike mentality of eliminating waste and investing its money where it matters.

South Korea saw an increase in the number of universities in the 1990s in response to societal demands for a better-educated populace. At the same time, though, another problem emerged--some of these new institutions were just not cut out to survive as universities. In 2004, the government introduced a “restructuring plan” to tackle the issue of “bad universities.”

Now, if a university experiences financial difficulties or does not meet its enrollment targets, the government will slash its funding and push it toward a merger or acquisition. If necessary, the school might even be closed down.

According to a South Korean research institute, five universities have been forced to close their doors since 2004, while an additional 40 have been pegged for restructuring. Many seem to be regional universities or private colleges in financial trouble.

After peaking in 2012, the number of high-school graduates in South Korea began falling to hit 630,000 in 2013. At that time, there were 560,000 university places waiting for them. However, five years from now, in 2018, the number of places will come close to topping the number of graduates. Kim Jae-kum, the 45-year-old, head of the Education Ministry’s University Policy Bureau, is worried.

“In 10 years’ time, there will 160,000 excess places,” he says.

There are currently 350 universities and colleges in South Korea, but a quick glance at the enrollment figures suggests 118 of them will be deemed unnecessary in seven or eight years.

The restructuring plan has a further goal, though: to improve the quality of the country’s top universities.

“We only have so much money, so if we want to improve South Korea’s international competitiveness and global standing, we should divert public funds to those institutions providing the best education and research,” Kim says.

The government will soon announce a new framework for university management. Beginning next fiscal year, universities will be categorized into five grades, such as “excellent” or “good.” Student quotas will then be allocated according to grade. Government funding for universities in the bottom two grades will be minimized. If they cannot then manage, they will be forced to close.

“We will probably lose 30 to 50 universities in the next 10 years or so,” Kim says.

Sungkyunkwan University professor Bae Sang-hoon used to chair the Ministry of Education’s structural reform research team. He has his own opinion on South Korea’s sink-or-swim policy.

“If we leave it to market forces, regional universities or the nonvocational sector won’t survive,” Bae says. “There are some areas where the government has to step in.”

Japan also faces problems of declining birthrates and over-supply. According to the Promotion and Mutual Aid Corporation for Private Schools of Japan, 40 percent of all private universities, or 232 in total, could not fill their student quotas in fiscal 2013. This explains why university restructuring has also become a hot topic in Japan since the 2000s. In fiscal 2008, Keio University merged with Kyoritsu College of Pharmacy, while the next year saw the amalgamation of Kwansei Gakuin University and Siewa University.

In fiscal 2010, meanwhile, five universities announced they would stop taking on new students, with three more following suit in fiscal 2013.

Hiroto Ide, a 41-year-old associate professor at Nagasaki University and an expert in South Korean education, believes something needs to be done.

“South Korea has built a framework for robust government intervention in higher education,“ Ide says. “This might seem alien to the Japanese way of doing things, but we can’t just sit back and do nothing.”

By TOMOKO YAMASHITA/ The Asahi Shimbun Staff Writer

Translated by The Asahi Shimbun AJW. More related stories available at

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