Korea’s higher education has achieved a spectacular quantitative growth and expansion over the past several decades. The quantitative profile of Korea’s higher education is astonishing and truly impressive even for the OECD standard. College education has become virtually universalized, with about three-quarters of high school gradates advancing to colleges. Indeed, as a result of the globally unprecedented quantity expansion and growth, Korea has come to emerge as a country with one of the most extensive tertiary education sectors in the world. Despite such impressive quantitative profile, however, there is a growing concern amongst Korean policy-makers, experts, and the general public alike, that its higher education is seriously defective, unsuitable for meeting the challenges of the knowledge economy and lifelong learning. As the market is flooded with unemployed college gradates, signs of ‘over-education’ ‘over-crowding’ and ‘skills mismatch’ are prevalent across virtually all fields of occupations and industries. A majority of firms and students report that college education is either irrelevant to or inadequate for meeting the ever diversifying and demanding skill demands at the business forefronts. Despite the arduous reform efforts and variegated policy measures taken so far, the problems appear to persist.
In large, the deficiencies of Korean higher education may be viewed as stemming from the problems of over-regulation and under-financing. Korean higher education system has been heavily regulated by the state when compared to western countries, and remains highly centralized and inflexible to market needs. The deregulation efforts made since the early 1990s have not gone far enough or have not rooted down yet. Both the private and public universities lack autonomy in their management and academic affairs, with government regulations constraining them in recruitment and payment of staffs, student enrollments and admissions, fee levels, and so on. Essentially, the current relation between the state and the universities in Korea is the kind of administratively guided autonomy and administrative accountability system. As for the financing issue, virtually all higher education institutions in Korea have suffered from lack of resources. Korea spends the greatest portion of national income on higher education among the OECD countries now, but it still belongs to a group of countries that spend relatively less for each college student for their incomes. It may well be said that the expansion of Korea’s higher education has been a seriously under-funded process, taking place to the detriment of the average quality. Government financial support for tertiary education has been very small, and private expenditure, mainly tuition, has been the main source of revenue in tertiary education. As a result, the overall schooling environment has become shamefully poor, with investment failing to keep pace with explosive increase in students body.
By many accounts, the upcoming decade will be an extremely turbulent period for Korea’s higher education, marked by rapid demographic shifts and incessant changes of labor market conditions. The more urgent the task of upgrading the quality of its higher education becomes, the more Korea needs to take an objective and balanced view about itself. A growing number of countries are exerting all-out efforts to improve the overall quality of their manpower through significant transformation of their higher education systems. But progress has been uneven and sharp contrast remains across and within the education system worldwide. Though varied in degree and context, most countries continue to wrestle with some difficulties of their own, such as those arising from inadequate responses to a set of pre-existing and emerging new challenges. Taking into account such global context and trend, the present situation and prospect of future Korean higher education may not be so frustrating and bleak as is widely perceived so within Korea. Despite the stock of grave problems it faces, Korea has the great potential to emerge as a leading knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, drawing on the assets within its tertiary education sector and capitalizing on various factors that could favorably affect its upgrading efforts.
First, an increasing number of countries around the world, whether developed or developing, are still struggling to build up or further expand their tertiary education sectors. In contrast, Korea is in the position to focus more on ‘quality-reform’, with quantitative expansion almost completed. Second, given the low burden of budget support for the basic education sector and the huge reservoir of private resources, Korea has the great advantage of bearing the huge additional investment costs needed to upgrade higher education without increasing the financial burden of the government or private sectors that much. Third, Korea’s labor market conditions and underlying social and cultural environment have long been the critical factors that block out innovation and competition among institutions, thereby hampering progress towards greater diversity and higher quality. Amid Korea’s economy-wide restructuring process since the latest financial crisis, however, the labor market is becoming more and more flexible, and new social and economic environments are forming up for open and fair innovation contest among higher education institutions. Forth, the widespread concern over the surplus of college graduates in the market is understandable, but may be over-subscribed. Korea’s economic structure is already advanced enough to accommodate a substantially large body of college graduates. As Korea’s industrial progress continues into the future, demands for college graduates will keep growing and diversifying, inducing a stable and large portion of high school graduates to continue to seek for higher education in turn. A substantial amount of additional demands will come from the existing workforce that seeks for continuing education at higher education institutions. Finally, quite meaningfully, fundamental changes have been made recently with respect to overall policy environments. With a bold organizational shake-up marked by the restructuring of the Ministry of Education in 2001, a new policy approach is anchoring so as to address educational issues in an integrated, general equilibrium framework together with a range of demand-side issues such as R&D, industrial development, workforce support, and et cetra. Most notably, a greater policy emphasis has been placed on higher education, especially on the university-industry linkage that holds a key to Korea’s endeavor to upgrade its industrial competitiveness as well as higher education.
Although a set of favorable factors are in place or forming up, it will be a truly formidable task for Korea to successfully transform its higher education sector, capitalizing on those factors. The policy objectives of ‘greater flexibility, diversity, and excellence’ can be attained only through a series of fundamental, thorough, and systematic reforms. But no comprehensive reform blueprint has been offered yet. Although Korea is situated to focus on ‘quality reform,’ free from the burden of ‘quantity expansion,’ the over-expanded higher education sector of Korea itself poses a huge challenge for any comprehensive reform, since a substantial body of constituents needs commensurate full-scale actions. The basic approach needed for a successful transformation of Korea’s higher education is a gradual restructuring and self-selective upgrading of the tertiary sector. With private institutions taking up a predominant portion of the market, Korea’s higher education market is highly amenable to competition-oriented, market-based policies. The role of the state and the core objectives of the system reform that Korea need at the moment is thus to firmly establish a new market environment conducive to fair, innovative competition amongst schools and faculties where consumers' right to choose is guaranteed at maximum. Once such system is in place, some innovative schools will show up, and their influence and performance will gradually dissipate to other groups and organizations.