After Decades of Expansion, South Korea Has More Colleges Than It Needs - Global - The Chronicle of Higher Education
It has become something of a joke here. At the same time President Obama is lavishly praising South Korea’s education system, South Koreans are heaping criticism on it.
In speeches about America’s relative decline, Mr. Obama has repeatedly singled out South Korea’s relentless educational drive, its high university enrollment, and its steady production of science and engineering graduates as worthy of emulation.
His South Korean counterpart, meanwhile, warns of a glut of university graduates and a work force hard-wired to outdated 20th-century manufacturing skills. “Reckless entrance into college is bringing huge losses to families and the country alike,” said President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea recently.
Mr. Lee has raised eyebrows, and hackles, by suggesting that fewer people should go to college from a population of 50 million that sustains 3.8 million undergraduate and graduate students.
South Korea’s achievements are certainly impressive. The Organisation for Economic and Co-operation and Development ranks its high-school students among the top three in the world in mathematics and science, a long way ahead of the United States, at 25th for math and 17th for science. Thanks to a huge two-decade expansion of higher education, 82 percent of those students now go on to study at two- or four-year colleges, according to the government-financed Korea Educational Development Institute—a remarkable feat for what was one of the poorest countries on the planet until the 1960s. As late as 1977, fewer than 5 percent of Korean 18- to 22-year-olds went to college.
But with a demographic crisis looming, the government now admits that the expansion has gone too far. “We allowed too many universities to open,” says Sung Geun Bae, director general of South Korea’s education ministry. Mr. Sung points out that his country simultaneously has one of the world’s highest university enrollment rates—and one of the world’s lowest birthrates. “Fifteen years ago we needed all those universities, but times have changed.”
What that means for the nation’s 40 public universities and 400 private colleges is still being debated across the nation, but the writing is on the wall. Education Minister Lee Ju-Ho warns that student enrollment at Korean colleges will plummet by 40 percent in the next 12 years. By 2016 there will already be more university places than high-school graduates, and many institutions will be forced to shut their gates or merge in what is likely to be a very painful downsizing for a nation that reveres education.