Higher Education Strategy Associates

Korean Lessons

I’m in Seoul this week, studying some aspects of the Republic of Korea’s system of lifelong learning (picture me Gangnam-dancing if you must). But the country’s overall system of higher education is so flat-out amazing, I thought it would be worth a post or two.

How amazing is it, you ask? Well, they kick our behinds in terms of access and success – 90% of their high school graduates attend university or “junior college” right after high school and the graduation rate is very high. They went from having an essentially vestigial system of higher education in 1960 (100,000 students) to a universal system (3 million students) in a little more than 40 years. And while they focused initially on quantity, they’ve done a heck of a job on quality in recent years as well: Seoul National University (SNU) is one of only a handful of universities anywhere to have been founded after World War II and achieved true global status for academic excellence, particularly in engineering.

All this isn’t due to some massive dumping of public money into the system, either. In fact, no one in the OECD spends less public money on higher education than Korea (about 0.43% of GDP). They manage this by having a massive system of privately-owned and financed higher education institutions (rather like Japan) which educate about two-thirds of all students and which are nearly entirely financed by tuition. But hold on there, free-market types – as in Japan, private universities are so tightly regulated that in many respects they have less autonomy than do most public ones in our neck of the woods (though government oversight has been very gradually receding over time).

Public universities receive government assistance, but even here tuition is substantial – slightly higher than in Canada. More to the point, perhaps, Korea’s government is at the forefront of tying public money to specific activities. Virtually all of the new public money put into the system since about 1998 has gone into targeted programs like the World-Class Universities program (hiring foreign faculty), Brain Korea 21 (spending bazillions of won on graduate students) and the like.

Even more so than us, they’re facing the effects of a declining youth population on university enrolments and finances. Their solution? International students! They’ve gone from essentially zero to 90,000 in the last decade, mostly from China and Mongolia. Intriguingly, they don’t treat them as cash cows the way we do. In Korea, international students are actually charged slightly less than domestic students, with government top-ups covering the difference. Why? Basically, government sees some “soft power” benefits to having more international students.

There are lessons for Canada here, if we care to look.

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