Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Korea

May 19

Free Tuition, Sea of Japan Edition

To Tokyo, where the ruling Liberal Democrats are considering adopting a proposal from a small right-wing party (Nippon Ishin no Kai – roughly, Japan Restoration Party) to enshrine a constitutional right to free tuition.  This is not, it is safe to say, because of any principled attachment to accessible education – the party opposed free secondary education (which the Democratic Party implemented during its brief, mostly hapless, stint in government which ended five years ago) as recently as a couple of years ago, calling it “an unprincipled policy to buy votes”.

So what’s behind Shinzo Abe’s new ploy?  Two things.  First, Prime Minister Abe’s attempts to kick-start Japan’s long-stalled economy have had only middling success.  Free tuition would in effect be another Keynesian stimulus, freeing lots of family savings to be spent on other things.  Now, technically that doesn’t require a constitutional change, but some observers think Abe would not be able to get a free-tuition proposal worth 5 trillion Yen (C$60 billion) through a normal budgetary approval process; a constitutional amendment would make the spending automatic, thus circumventing the budget process.

But the bigger reason is much more Machiavellian.  Abe’s fondest political wish is to alter the Japanese Constitution, written in 1945 by US occupying forces, to remove Article 9, which bans Japan from having armed forces.  Though Abe himself if popular, this proposal is not: since World War II the Japanese have become about as peacefully-minded nation as one can imagine.  And so, Abe is trying to tie a constitutional amendment on free-tuition to a constitutional amendment on the armed forces to sweeten the deal.

A couple of points here.  First, this would be a policy reversal on a massive scale.  As R. Taggart Murphy noted back here Japan deliberately kept tuition, along with land values, high in the postwar period as a form of industrial policy (note: if you are interested in Japan and not reading R. Taggart Murphy, especially his magnificent book Japan: The Shackles of the Past, you’re doing it wrong).  High savings meant low interest rates, which gave Japanese industrialists access to cheap capital, which in turn gave them a big manufacturing cost advantage, and Japan rode this to economic success in the 1960s.  Basically, short term pain for long term gain. Now, Abe wants to reverse this process.

The bigger question, though – and not one I have seen discussed anywhere in the Japanese press – is how on earth one implements a free tuition promise in a country where somewhere between 75 and 80% of all students attend private universities.  Making tuition free at national (public) universities is a cinch, but – as Chile discovered a couple of years ago – trying to do the same with private universities without outright nationalization is kind of difficult.  Fees vary from one institution to another: how would each be compensated in a consistent manner?

There’s something similar going on the other side of the Sea of Japan, where new Korean President Moon Jae-in has promised to halve tuition fees.  This isn’t the first time Koreans have heard such a pledge.  In 2011, months of student protests forced then-President Lee Myung-bak to make a similar pledge; however, in the end nothing was done and fees stayed the same (fee levels in Korea are similar to those in Canada).  But again, it’s not entirely clear how once can effectively deliver on a fee-reduction pledge in a system which is dominated by private universities without partial or outright nationalization, which seems unlikely.

If I had to guess, I’d say Korea’s the likelier to implement policy change because a) I don’t think Article 9 is going anywhere, free tuition or no and b) the Korean government is just a lot better at getting stuff done.  But we’ll see.  Two stories to watch, for sure.

August 18

Credit-Transfer, Korean Style

There are not many genuinely unique ideas in higher education.  Today, we at HESA are releasing a paper about one of them: Korea’s Academic Credit Bank System (ACBS), available here.

Korea has long had a problem with credit transfer.  Its higher education institutions are fairly rigid in terms of admissions, and few like accepting transfer students.  Another big problem is that Korean males have to do two years (roughly – it depends on the service) of universal military service, and they tend to do it before they’ve finished their higher education. People wanting to combine credits taken from a variety of institutions while on duty were usually out of luck if they tried to get those credits counted at their old institution.

So, in the 1990s, the Korean government started experimenting with new forms of educational credential.  Their first attempt was to create something called the Self-Study Bachelor’s Degree, in which Koreans could basically take a bunch of challenge exams on their own, and obtain a credential.  But the pick-up rate on this was fairly low (lessons here for people who thought MOOCs would create a tsunami of change, had they cared to check), and so the search for solutions was back on.

Eventually, they hit on the answer: if we can’t get existing institutions to agree on transfer credit, why not create a new institution that specializes in granting transfer credit?  In fact, why not create an institution that doesn’t offer any credit of its own, but just develops degree standards and tells people what courses to take in order to meet them?  No more schools telling you: “yeah, you’ve already taken that methods pre-req class, but you haven’t taken our methods pre-req class, so you’ll need to do that material again” – if the class gets accredited by the ACBS, you can use it as a building block to an ACBS degree.

Does it work?  You might say that.  The ACBS now awards roughly 8% of all degrees in South Korea, second only to the Korea National Open Univerisy (KNOU).  It has curricula for over 200 individual fields of study, and increasingly, the ACBS target audience is older and more female, with more and more degrees coming in areas like social work and early childhood education.

Would the ACBS work well outside Korea?  Hard to say: it’s not clear, for instance, that a Canadian ACBS would get a lot of clients.  Yes, the Canadian credit transfer system outside British Columbia and Alberta (which have quite developed transfer mechanisms) is a less a “system” than a barrel full of ad-hoc solutions.  But as I showed back here and here, this ad-hoc-ery  actually works-out okay in practice.  So while a Credit Bank might be a much cleaner solution than the piecemeal kind of approach Ontario has taken through ONCAT, it may also be overkill.

Where this approach might make even more sense is in the US, where, as Cliff Adelman and others have shown, there are millions of people with unfinished degrees who want to get a degree, but who are worried about the time and expense of having to re-start their studies.  The main barrier, really, is: how do you get something like that past accreditation agencies?  But given the potential benefits, it’s a problem worth thinking about.

May 27

Higher Education Management, Hermit Kingdom-Style

Frabjous day!  I have just read one of the great higher education management tracts of all time. I’m of course speaking about, On Improving Higher Education, by Kim Il Sung.  (Pyongyang Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1974).

Don’t let Kim’s “communist” label fool you – what this guy cared most about was the concept of Juche  (self-reliance), which continues to be the underlying ideology of the north’s nationalist, quasi-fascist state.  As you can imagine, this meant a lot of belt-tightening.  As such, Kim’s thoughts have mostly to do with things like optimization, efficiency, and austerity.  Really, a perfect book for our times.

Pay raises, for instance are Right Out.  “As long as you make an issue out of remuneration, you cannot be a revolutionary,” says Kim, righteously noting that nobody paid Marx to write Das Kapital (the fact that Marx died before completing it might have had something to do with that, but no matter). North Korean intellectuals had the privilege of giving lectures and writing books, “and yet they insist on receiving money for this wonderful task,” Kim splutters.

Work rules, too, come under serious scrutiny.  Responding to complaints that “university and college professors lecture a thousand hours a year”, which some consider to be too much, Kim is clear: “You are wrong!  Fundamentally speaking, calculating lecture hours is not the attitude of a revolutionary.  If you are true revolutionaries who serve the people, you would never calculate the hours; you try hard by all means to work as much as you can”.

(I make the following offer to university administrations across Canada: if any of you decide to try to outflank your faculty union to the left by telling them their views are evidence of captiveness to bourgeois ideology, I’m buying the first round.)

Times were tough in North Korea in the 60s.  In order to rebuild the country after war, there was a need to get Engineers into the field quickly, leaving little time for things like, say, a final year of studies.  “They say our technicians’ qualifications are low, but in fact they are not so low”, says Kim.  “Our Engineers may have graduated a year earlier, but since they have had more training at the actual places of production, they have many merits”.  Glen Murray couldn’t have put it any better.

The same applies to student enrolment, generally.  “Providing so many students with stipends is causing a heavy burden on the state”, he notes.  The solution?  Send them to work, and have them study while working.  If MOOCs had been around in the 60s, you know he’d have been all over them.  Juche, dontcha know.

Really, I can’t recommend this book enough.  A text for our times.

October 19

More Korean Lessons

Higher education is an inherently conservative industry – it’s extremely rare to come across something genuinely new and unique in the field. Which is precisely why Korea’s so interesting: it has a number of genuine system innovations, particularly in lifelong learning, from which a lot of countries could learn.

Koreans have what some commentators call “education fever”; as in many Confucian countries, the sacrifices families make to ensure their children get an education are almost incomprehensible to North Americans. But until the early 1980s, the opportunities to obtain higher education were quite limited. As the system began to expand, there was an enormous explosion of pent-up demand, and not just among the young: people in mid-career also wanted to get the education that was previously unavailable.

Institutions couldn’t cope with the demand, and even if they could, they were wedded to an elite cohort intake model, and the idea of working people coming in to study part-time sat uneasily with that. So the Korean government came up with two alternatives. One was to create a number of “self-study” degree programs; essentially allowing the individuals to get a degree from the ministry by simply writing a set of challenge exams. The other was to create a “Credit Bank” – essentially a degree-granting organization of last resort, which would allow individuals unable to attend regular university and college programs to obtain Bachelor or associate degrees by piecing together credits from multiple institutions, both physical and online (though, interestingly, the credit bank’s biggest current problem is policing online learning providers, the worry being that inadequate invigilation and the potential for fraud will eventually devalue the credit bank’s degrees if they keep accepting such credits).

I know, what a great idea, right? Such a neat solution to the problem of credit transfer. But though this system bears a lot of resemblance to the fantasies of DIY higher education fanatics in that it breaks the monopoly of traditional education providers, it’s not exactly a majority taste. Despite being able to provide degrees in a manner which is cheaper and/or more convenient than the alternatives, only about 6% of all degrees provided last year in Korea came through the credit bank and the self-study Bachelor’s.

The reason for that is pretty simple, and one that the Great Disruption types need to keep in mind: people prefer the prestige of a regular degree from a regular university. Just because someone invents something new and cool doesn’t mean people’s preferences are necessarily going to change, even if it means lower costs and/or more convenience. Korea just goes to show that in a battle between educational innovation and educational prestige, one should always bet on the latter.

Annyeong hikyeseyo!

October 18

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.