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South Korean students protest rising college tuition

While decrying rising educational costs – a phenomenon that’s shaken campuses throughout the world – students in South Korea are increasingly worried about landing a job after college.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / June 14, 2011

A college student takes part in a performance to show that he wants to study without being concerned about soaring tuition fees at a candlelight rally demanding tuition fees cuts at the Cheonggye plaza in central Seoul on June 10. Thousands of college students and supporting citizens on Friday continued a protest demanding South Korean President Lee Myung-bak fulfil his presidential election pledge to cut tuition fees by half, and provide solutions for youth unemployment.

Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters

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Seoul, South Korea

Young people here are incensed by rising tuition for college educations that provide scant assurance of jobs in a time of rising social tensions driven by unemployment rates over 20 percent among those in their 20s.

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The cost of college in Korea may seem low compared with US tuitions, but thousands of protesters, gathering nightly for the past month in central Seoul and at Korean colleges elsewhere, charge that President Lee Myung-bak has gone back on a 2007 campaign pledge to halve college fees.

At elite Seoul National University, students have been occupying the administration building to protest a plan to turn the school into a corporation, which they say would effectively privatize it and bring about a vast increase in fees.

“Education is like a religion in Korea,” says Lee Ki-joo during a rally here. “You have to study 17 hours a day just to go to a good college, and then they raise the tuition enormously.”

On top of that, he says, “You can only get part-time work when you graduate.”

Mr. Lee, who went to a distinctly nonelite college near Seoul, says major companies consider graduates only of the “SKY universities – Seoul National University and next-ranked Korea and Yonsei universities – and a handful of other institutions.

“I’m not employed even though I graduated,” says Lee, struggling to pay back loans. “Now I work part-time for some game companies. It’s not worth the cost of an education.”

While decrying tuition hikes, a global phenomenon that’s shaken campuses in the US, Britain, and elsewhere, Korean students want a revision of the educational system. Protests also highlight student frustration at widening income gaps as opportunities decline.

Students say the government needs to close this opportunity gap. “They should give more scholarships,” says Choi Tai-hyun, entering college this year. “Students work day and night to cover costs. That’s nonsense.”

The government, meanwhile, has insisted that President Lee promised to cut the cost of private educational expenses by half by strengthening public education but did not guarantee a tuition cut. In fact, he warned that expenses incurred in precipitous cuts in tuition would “rock the country.”

Where are the jobs?

The protests also highlight issues that go far beyond fees that come to less than $5,000 a year at any of Korea’s 40 public universities and no more than $9,000 a year at private universities.

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