South Korea Faces Student Shortage

President Obama often uses South Korea as a great example for its relentless educational drive, its high university enrollment, and its steady production of science and engineering graduates. However, a declining birthrate means that the country is being forced to close some of its institutions, writes David McNeill at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

"Reckless entrance into college is bringing huge losses to families and the country alike," said President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea.

Mr. Lee's comments have raised eyebrows, after all South Korea's achievements are impressive. The Organization for Economic and Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranks its high-school students among the top three in the world for mathematics and science. 82 percent of those students now go on to study at two or four year colleges, as well, according to the government-financed Korea Educational Development Institute.

But the government now admits an error, as the country simultaneously has one of the world's highest university enrollment rates and one of the world's lowest birthrates.

"We allowed too many universities to open," says Sung Geun Bae, director general of South Korea's education ministry.

"Fifteen years ago we needed all those universities, but times have changed."

There are 40 public universities and 400 private colleges across the nation. But as student enrollment at Korean colleges plummets by 40 percent in the next 12 years, 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.

South Korea is the second highest spender on education as a proportion of its economy of the 34 OECD nations, just behind Iceland. Coupled with the amount of spending by South Korean families on private education, including test-preparation services, is the highest in the world, according to the latest education report by the international body.

But Lee Seongho, a professor of education at Chung-Ang University says the president is correct—and that Obama shouldn't hold up South Korea as a model of education success.

"President Obama suffers from an illusion about South Korean education," he says.

The key question for educators and education stakeholders in South Korea now is whether universities can produce innovation and creativity during what is clearly an economic and demographic headache for the country's higher-education system.

"Times have changed, and we have new technologies and knowledge. I'm in favor of combining conventional methods with the innovative spirit, and we need a system that generates innovation and creativity."

12 6, 2011
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