HESA

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.

October 05

A Brief History of Exams

Written exams are such a major part of our schools and universities that we forget sometimes that they are not actually native to the western system of education.  How did they become so ubiquitous?  Well here’s the story:

Originally, the Western tradition eschewed exams.  Universities offered places based on recommendations.  If one could impress one’s teachers for a few years, one might be invited to audition for right to be granted a degree. In medieval universities, for instance, one obtained a degree once one was capable of giving lectures or credibly argue a particular position in a debate format (the disputatio).  This was more or less the case right through until the 17th century.  This was completely different from how it was done in China.  There, ferociously difficult examinations for entry into the Imperial Civil Service had been the norm since the first century AD (give or take a couple of centuries of inter-dynastic interregnums due to societal collapse, civil wars, etc).  To help students through these exams, “academies” were created, which, with a bit of squinting, can be seen as forerunners of today’s universities (for more on early Chinese higher education see here).

In the late 16th century, a Jesuit priest named Matteo Ricci was sent to China and eventually rose to a very senior position within the order.  He was very impressed by the competitive and meritocratic nature of the Chinese examination system, and described it in glowing terms to his superiors in Rome.  Being a pedagogically-minded order, the Jesuits themselves adopted written examinations in order to make their own system tougher and more competitive.  In the 18th century, absolutist reformers trying to create meritocratic civil services (as opposed to ones run by aristocratic place-holders) decided to put the Jesuits’ “Chinese” system to work.  Starting in Prussia, then spreading around Europe over the following century, bureaucrats now had to pass examinations.  As more and more people tried to apply to the civil service, the universities – which were mainly prep schools for the civil service – became more crowded and gradually introduced their own entrance examinations as well.  The first of these was the German Abitur, which is still the qualification required to enter university.

The question of who set these exams – the education ministries in charge of secondary education?  the universities themselves? – was answered different ways in different countries.  In the United States, the Ivies maintained their own exams well into the twentieth century.  To keep out the riff-raff they would do things like test for ability in Greek – a subject not taught at public schools.  As universities began to expand the range of their intakes, they started to see problems with exams based on curricula and started looking for something that would measure potential regardless of which state or school they came from.  This led them to consider psychometric examinations instead, and hence the SAT was born.

Psychometric testing never really caught on outside the US (thought Sweden uses a variant of it).  Generally speaking, the dominant form of testing around the world remains a high-stakes test at the end of secondary school: the gaokao in China, the Korean suneung and the Japanese center are the most famous of these, but most of Europe and Africa operate on some variant of this (albeit without causing the same level of commotion and stress because European university systems are less hierarchically stratified than East Asian ones).  In many of the post-Soviet countries, university entrance exams were a source of lucre.  A prestige institution could set its own exam, and rake off money from students either through preparatory classes or by requesting bribes to pass.  The establishment of national university entrance exams in these countries were thus as much as an anti-graft measure as a pro-merit measure.

Many parts of the world – but particularly Asian countries – are seeing the downsides of basing so much on a single set of exams, and are trying in various ways to try to de-emphasize testing as a means of distinguishing between students, both because they are seen as overly stressful to youth and because the results have been time and again to reinforce class privilege.  The problem with the latter is that no one has yet come up with alternative measures of academic prowess or potential which are significantly less correlated with privilege; and exam results, whatever their faults, do provide transparency in results, and hence a greater appearance of fairness.

In short: there’s lots wrong with high-stakes exams, but they aren’t going anywhere soon.

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.

June 30

The Effects of Tuition Fees (Part 2)

As I mentioned last week, a major paper I’ve been working on for over a year with colleagues from DZHW on the subject of the effects of fees was published last Monday by the EC (available here).  In my last post, I talked about how fees affected institutions – today, I want to talk about how they affect students.

In our report, we looked at case studies over 15 years (1995-2010) from nine countries – Austria, Canada, England, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, and South Korea.  These countries represent very different experiences.  Some have private higher education, others don’t.  Some have public sectors that change fees, while others don’t (Hungary and Poland are in the middle, where public universities provide education free for some while charging for others).  And looking across all the different cases, we found = the following:

1)      Most tuition increases have no perceptible effect on enrolment.  The only cases where clear-cut effects could be discerned was in England in 2012, where the increase was about $10,000 in a single year, and in the de-regulation of professional fees in Ontario in the mid-90s (where, bizarrely, low-income students were not affected, but middle-income students were).

2)      That said, there are also some clear-cut cases where tuition has been a driver of increased access.  In both Poland and South Korea, major increases in enrolments were driven by the existence of fee-supported places (mainly but not exclusively in private institutions).

3)      Though this is partly a matter of many countries having education data-sets that make Canada’s look enviable, there is very little evidence that changes in fees have done much to change the composition of the student body.  In every country where there is data, underrepresented groups have done better over time, regardless of the fee regime.  Even in the extreme case of England 2012, under-represented groups (the poorest income quintile, black and Asian students) tended to be less affected by the tuition increase than richer, whiter students. (The one exception here is older students, who were disproportionately affected by the changes.)  To the extent that late-entrants to higher education come from poorer backgrounds, this should be seen as a kind of hidden socio-economic effect of fees.

4)      Changes in tuition fees seem to have had no discernible effects on students’ choice of major, and few discernible effects on students’ decisions about where to study (in Canada, for instance, rates of out-of-province study are actually up over the last decade).

5)      It is not so much that fees themselves have no effect; rather, it is that in nearly all cases, fees are introduced with accompanying increases in student aid.  Sometimes it is paltry compared to the size of the fees required (e.g. South Korea in the 90s), sometimes it is implemented in a fairly clunky way (Germany, mid-2000s).  But it is always there to offset the worst effects of fees.  And in the case of England 2012, it was there to ensure that students weren’t required to pay a single extra penny of costs up-front, which seems to have had a major factor in limiting the impact of the world’s largest-ever tuition increase (in the short-term at least).

The lesson here?  Unless you’re planning on going England-style crazy, international evidence fee increases are unlikely to affect access in a measurable way.

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.