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South Korea: Private higher education sector stands firm amidst nationwide tuition fee cuts

The South Korean government’s request of its universities nationwide to reduce tuition fees, especially undergraduate fees, has been met with lukewarm responses. A total of 337 universities and colleges out of 344 nationwide announced that they will lower their tuition fees in 2012.  However, the average percentage of these reductions is 4.2%, lower than the 5% targeted by the government this year and much lower than the Board of Audit and Inspection of Korea’s recommendation of a 15% cut. Leading private universities such as Yonsei University and Korea University have stood firm amidst the pressure to reduce fees and promised reductions of less than 3%. Some institutions have even tried to recoup their lost income by raising tuition fees for graduate study programmes, such as law schools, business schools, or other specialised graduate programmes. Student protests against high education costs forced the current Korean President Lee Myung-bak to pledge a 50% cut of tuition fees in his 2007 presidential campaign. The tepid response of leading universities towards the government’s request to reduce tuition fees risks reigniting student discontent, which brought student protesters into the streets in mid-2011. The strong reputation of some private universities plays a crucial role in good job placement outcomes but at the same time allows these universities to charge high tuition fees. To counter the inflated tuition fees, in particular fees in the private sector, the South Korean government has implemented tough measures to weed out underperforming private institutions and has redirected government subsidies for private institutions to student aid (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, September 2011). Earlier this year, in January, the metropolitan government of Seoul announced in its “New Seoul City Policies for 2012” a 50% cut in the tuition fee of the municipal university. However, the discouraging responses of the private sector—which accounts for 80% of all the higher education institutions in South Korea—remain a tricky issue to be tackled by the Korean politicians at both the national and city level. Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (in Korean) (official information portal of the government of South Korea)