South Korea: Reform resistance

EducationWorld June 2022 | International News Magazine

South Korea’s incoming education minister may struggle to make the sweeping reforms necessary to address critical problems in the country’s higher education sector.

Kim In-Chul, who is likely to assume the post after president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol takes office in June, served two consecutive terms as president of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, where he was a professor. He also headed the Korean Council for University Education (KCUE), which represents four-year universities in the country.
But academics say that Prof. Kim will have to contend with strong political forces to push through any meaningful changes to the sector, which is grappling with steeply dropping enrolments.

South Korea is known globally for its strong education, but the subject is also a political hot potato, with candidates for the presidency largely skirting it during their campaigns. “We can hardly expect dramatic change and innovations in education policies at the moment,” says Suyoun Byoun, a higher education researcher. Dr. Byoun doubts that the new government is “likely to gain enough public support to start new innovations” aimed at reforming the sector, which she describes is in “urgent” need of consolidation.

“It will be challenging for Prof. Kim to make big changes because education policy is such a politicised issue,” agrees Jae-Eun Jon, an associate professor of education at Hankuk, who notes that already plans to merge the country’s ministries of education and science have been kicked down the road. Still, Dr. Jon is hopeful that the incoming minister will push forward “urgent agendas for higher education”.

Top among these include dropping enrolment due to Korea’s demographic decline, which has already prompted closure of universities and is expected to get worse. Another is addressing Korea’s urban-rural divide, with universities outside Seoul seen as less prestigious and are often strapped for resources.

Perhaps more controversially, Prof. Kim may fight for raising tuition fees, which have remained frozen for 13 years. Dr. Jon predicts that institutions will lobby hard to release tuition caps, something the incoming minister has previously supported. Still, she cautions this may not prove easy. “This is a bipartisan issue that two big parties must agree on, so (lobbying for an increase) wouldn’t be an easy task,” Dr. Jon says.

Currently, the government evaluates universities on numerous indicators to determine its financial support, putting “much burden and pressure on HEIs, taking away resources and energy” from their other activities, says Dr. Jon.
The future education minister should also focus on giving universities more leeway to manage themselves, says Hyun Chong Lee, executive director of the Higher Education Research Institute at Hanyang University. “His top priorities should be issues of university autonomy and accountability. To pursue these two goals, he must focus on (universities’) sustainable development,” says Prof. Lee.

But if Korea’s next education minister is to succeed, his greatest obstacle may be changing the minds of the very institutions under his charge. “Considering the resistance of HEIs to change, which I think most problematic, the government also needs to stimulate and support their change for the future, when a considerable number of them may disappear,” says Jon.

Also Read: South Korea: Grim prediction

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