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.
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.
One part of the problem is that the pressure to go to college is so intense that more than 80 percent of high school graduates matriculate as freshmen: To reach that stage, all undergo a one-day national examination that determines the level of institution they attend – and their ability to obtain a job at a prestigious company or government agency.
But many graduates complain that positions befitting their degrees are rare. While the country’s gross domestic product rises by an average of 4 percent a year, the high-tech revolution means that companies do not need so many new workers for jobs that are possible to do by computer and other innovations.
“In Korea the ratio of students going to college is two or three times that in the United States or Europe,” says Han Jeong-seok, a media consultant who graduated from Yonsei University, while tuition is about one fourth of that in the US. “We have to reorganize our universities. There are many low-grade institutions.”
Moreover, students discover that the system has fallen behind business and industry. “In Korea, technical changes happen very fast,” says Mr. Han. “Universities do not keep up.”
The ratio of faculty members to students doesn’t help matters. Even at well-regarded universities, it is more than 30 to 1. More than 200 students attend a typical lecture. Some classes may have as few as 30 or 40, but small group discussions are rare.
“I never knew any of my professors,” says a graduate of Korea University. “I never actually talked to them.”
A symbol of Korea’s universities
The protest at Seoul National University is significant in view of the university’s status as the leading educational institution. “It is a symbol of universities in Korea,” says a student. “It’s the most difficult to get in.”
That’s why it became the catalyst for protests when Korea’s National Assembly voted to turn the university into a corporation.
University officials deny, however, that the vote will “privatize” the university or necessarily raise tuition costs. “We are trying to have a continuous conversation,” says Choi Jon-won, a professor of public policy.
Student protesters say, however, they will settle for nothing less than a sharp decrease in tuition. “Half tuition is a matter of citizens’ rights.” says Park Sol-hee, a third-year student at Sookmyung Woman’s University. “This is not a left or right issue. It affects our entire society.”