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[News Focus] Students, parents pin hopes on fee cuts

June 9, 2011 - 19:01 By 이지윤
Number of student defaulters swells eightfold in 5 years to top 35,000 as of April

When he returned home from military service, Chung Jae-young, then 22, found out that his father had failed in business and the family was bankrupt.

After giving up on going back to school, he did everything he could to feed the family.

But what dragged him down the most, he said, was a student loan of 10 million won ($9,200) that he had taken out for the first school year of college.

“After missing debt payments for months, I was blacklisted as a credit delinquent,” Chung, now 28, said.

“I have been hopping from one job to another for almost 10 years. My future will not be much different. I cannot see the end,” he said.

Chung is one of tens of thousands of Korean college students to become a credit defaulter for failing to repay tuition debts. This year alone, there were more than 35,000 student defaulters as of April, nearly an eightfold increase over the past five years. 
College students hold a candlelit vigil in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, on Tuesday, demanding tuition be halved. (Yonhap News)

A nation of “crazy tuition”

Kim Hyung-geun, 26, graduated from a public university in March this year, and has 12 million won in debt to be repaid.

His father, a small-business owner whose monthly income hovers around 2 million won, could not afford his son’s last two years of tuition.

Since graduating, Kim has made money as a mathematics lecturer at a private academy because it was one of the fastest ways for a college graduate to get hired.

“Having a debt on my shoulders for the next 10 years, I have no idea how to plan my future life,” he said.

Of his 1.2 million won monthly salary, he has to spend 400,000 won for monthly rent and 150,000 won to pay each loan interest installment.

Korean college students and their struggling parents have long complained about the nation’s notoriously expensive tuition fees ― the second-highest among OECD countries behind the United States.

Last year, the average annual university tuition fee reached 7.5 million won for private schools and 5 million won for national and public schools.

In the United States, where public universities make up almost 70 percent of schools, the fee for a state university is $5,943 on average. In Korea, most of the schools (87 percent) are privately owned.

U.S. schools usually offer a variety of scholarship programs depending on the family income of the student, while in Korea such benefits are concentrated on those who achieve higher grades, making many students depend on student loans.

“I did several part-time jobs during semesters. But it was almost impossible to get a higher grade than the students who only study without doing side jobs,” said Kim.

Doubled with the recent falling employment rate for youngsters, many students who have not secured job qualifications, such as higher school grades, good English skills and other extra activities, are likely to land a part-time job or work as an irregular after graduation.

Is it all about money?

In a bid to curb tuition costs, the government and the ruling Grand National Party have adopted a two-track strategy: easing the tuition burden by limiting the rate of increase while expanding scholarships and student loan programs.

However, such efforts have made little progress and tuition fees remain prohibitively high.

The GNP announced its “half-price tuition” policy last month, one of President Lee Myung-bak’s key campaign pledges that had remained stalled due to poor economic conditions in recent years.

Unlike the original pledge, however, the new GNP plan aims to slash college tuition in half targeting only students from low-income households in the bottom 50 percent. The benefits will not be available, though, if students fail to score an average grade of B or higher in the previous semester.

Civic groups and students, who first welcomed the unexpected announcement by the conservative party, now criticize it for being lip service ahead of next year’s presidential election.

They argue the subsidies should be given regardless of family income, thus covering at least 80 percent of students. Under the GNP scheme, they said, only 25 percent of the 4.4 million university students here would receive the benefits.

Civic groups say at least 6 trillion won is needed to implement the half-priced tuition policy, while the GNP plan is based on a 2 trillion won budget.

“Some people, citing a lack of budget, oppose the half-tuition plan. But if the pending Grant Law for Higher Education passes the National Assembly, the policy could start as early as next year,” said Hwang Hee-ran, a researcher of Korea Higher Education Research Institute.

The grant law, proposed by the GNP as well as opposition parties, allows the government to spend state money to support private schools.

Some politicians propose tuition benefits be given to individual students depending on their family income. But Hwang criticized the view, saying it would be impossible for the government to oversee the process.

Currently, some private universities are believed to have accumulated leftover tuition fees as cash reserves rather than for benefiting students by expanding scholarships.

“Under the system, in which school financing is supported and monitored by the government, we can expect that student burdens would be relieved while school financing and management would get more transparent,” she said.

Candles lit up again

Amid heated social and political discussions on half-tuition, a massive gathering is planned on Friday in central Seoul.

Since large-scale candlelit vigils took place in 2008 against the import of U.S. beef, activists say, Friday’s rally could be the biggest one in recent years.

In a survey released on Thursday, 89.7 percent of 1,000 respondents said they favored the half-tuition policy, with 92.3 percent saying the nation’s tuition fees are too expensive considering the quality of education.

Together with opposition party members and civic groups, the student councils of some 40 universities in Seoul were to vote on a class boycott on Wednesday and Thursday.

If it gets approval from students, they plan to join the gathering, skipping classes on Friday.

The student representatives said in a statement: “Our decision is not intended to abandon study, but to continue to study.

“People say young people are the nation’s future. But unless the tuition issue is solved, there is no future,” said Kim Young-kyung, director general of Youth Community Union, the nation’s first labor union consisting of young jobseekers and part-timers.

The 30-year-old part-time instructor has recently paid off a 10 million won debt. It took 10 years. For the first time, in November, 2009, she started saving 50,000 won per month, Kim said.

“I hope the young generation will not be suffering with tuition debt any more,” she said.

By Lee Ji-yoon (