ON THE 28th of January, a press conference hosted by the Students’ Unions of several private universities in Seoul took place in front of the National Assembly Building. More than eight Students’ Unions, including the 53rd Students’ Union of Yonsei University, united together to demand that proper operation of the Tuition Review Committee be guaranteed and that government subsidies for universities be expanded. They claimed that increasing government aid to private universities could bring a decline in tuition fees, thus opening up higher education to all students, regardless of their household economic situation. As this claim implies, the tuition of private universities in South Korea is quite high. In an attempt to lower the tuition, amendments were made in the Higher Education Act in 2010. Through this act, the establishment of a Tuition Review Committee in every university has become mandatory, bringing about several positive changes. However, up until now, the Tuition Review Committee has never fulfilled its primary role to reduce tuition, and instead has become a means of justifying high tuition. What are the causes of this failure of the Tuition Review Committee?
Effects and limitations of the Tuition Review Committee
In the year 2010, amendments were made in the Higher Education Act Article 11 and the Tuition Regulation Act 2 with the purpose of setting an affordable tuition, thereby relieving the financial pressure imposed on many households. After such amendments, the first meeting of the Tuition Review Committee of Yonsei was held in 2012. In the first few years of implementation, some effects of the committee were quite clear and satisfactory. Since the establishment of the committee, students have been given the opportunity to participate in setting tuition during the meeting held in the beginning of the year. Student members of the committee conveyed their thoughts to the school, and this resulted in some positive changes. For example, the school accepted the suggestion of a student member to separately record the earnings from tuition and earnings from other external sources in the financial accounts of the school, which would make the accounts more transparent and accessible even for non-experts. Another change is that student members are given a chance to receive a thorough explanation on the composition of the tuition. During the meetings of the committee in the past year, students also pointed out that some budgets were excessively allocated and thus, reduced them. For instance, the estimated construction costs of new buildings on campus were estimated to be too high. Moreover, student representatives have emphasized the need for reducing dependency on tuition as the main source of income for school operations, although such voices were not heeded by the school.
While the committee helped bring about several positive changes during its first few initial years, the committee is currently failing to meet its stated purpose because of numerous structural flaws. First of all, the number of meetings is insufficient. The first conference of the year opens at the beginning of January, and the last conference is held at the end of the same month. As such, the number of conferences held per year is only five at best, not enough to discuss how the tuition fee will be spent for the rest of the year. Student members, too, need more time to analyze thoroughly the year’s budget prior to the meeting. In fact, Park Hye-soo, the current President of the 53rd Students’ Union and also a member of the Tuition Review Committee, stated, “Usually, we receive the budget for the coming year just a day before the first conference and thus have to examine the transferred documents in a rush. So before we receive them, we examine documents of previous years instead, as reference.”
Second, the composition of the committee is imbalanced. In the conference, although the number of committee members from the school is equal to the number of student representatives, the students’ side is considerably disadvantaged. This is because a financial expert chosen by the head of Yonsei is also included in the committee, speaking for the school which, as a matter of fact, is stated as legal in the revised Higher Education Act. The inclusion of an expert to represent the school could have the effect of intimidating and even overpowering the students in the committee. Moreover, because the number of student members then turns out to be one person less than members representing the school, inevitably the students’ stance will be disadvantaged when making the final decision. This is because the final decision is made by a vote held in the last meeting and requires the agreement of 1/2 of total participants for approval. Of course, it is possible that committee members representing the university administration and members from the student body could reach an agreement. If that is not the case, however, then the committee with the current composition could be inclined either to maintain or to increase tuition, regardless of what the student members want. In order to solve this problem, student members of the committee suggested in the very first meeting of 2016 that because of the imbalanced composition, it would be better if final decisions are made when 2/3 of participants have agreed, but the proposal was not accepted.
Another drawback is that the Yonsei central administration does not seem entirely committed to the committee. According to the Higher Education Act Article 11, the school must provide all related documents to the students unless there is a valid reason otherwise. However, student members of the committee could not get the previously requested documents even by the second meeting of this year, while committee members from the school administration brought the related documents to the meeting. According to Park, the school administration made a roundabout explanation regarding this point by saying that its Budgeting Team had not yet completed preparing the document, because of privacy issues. The undemocratic decision making process further reflects the school’s attitude towards the committee. It is stated in the Higher Education Act that in setting tuition, it is mandatory for the Tuition Review Committee to hold its meetings beforehand, and that the head of school should take into account the decisions made from the committee. However, the problem is that the tuition is decided ultimately by the head of the school, instead of being decided at the conference of the committee. This accordingly indicates that the outcome of the conference could be neglected for “what’s best for the school,” in the eyes of the university administration.
Box 1: Amendments in Higher Education Act Article 11
- Each university should establish and activate a Tuition Review Committee that consists of faculty and staff, students, and experts in setting the tuition.
- Student members must exceed 30% of the entire committee.
- The number of committee members that belong to one unit should not exceed 50% of the whole committee.
- Members of the Tuition Review Committee can ask for related documents to the head of the school in calculating the tuition fee. If there is no valid reason to withhold the documents, the head of the school must confirm the request.
- The conference minutes should include the date, place, statements and resolutions of the meeting and then be made accessible to the public.
- The rate of the tuition increase should not exceed 1.5 times the average inflation rate of the past three years.
Faculty and staff: Head of Tuition Fee Committee, Vice Dean of Graduate School, Vice Dean of College of Liberal Arts, Chief of Budgeting Team, Head of Student Affairs and Services of Wonju Campus
Expert nominated by school president: Sam-il Pricewaterhouse Coopers
Student Representatives: President of Students’ Union of Sinchon Campus, President of Students’ Union of Wonju Campus, President of Graduate School, President of College of Social Science, President of Open Major
High walls against low tuition
At the press conference held in front of the National Assembly Building, students claimed that without proper government aid, tuition would further increase. At the same time, the school’s dependence on tuition for its yearly budget would increase as well, and students from lower-income households would become more liable to being deprived of higher education opportunities. Besides the structural flaw of the committee itself, there lies a fundamental cause which results in the failure of the Tuition Review Committee. Because of the lack of other sufficient sources of revenue besides tuition, private universities in Korea tend to depend heavily on tuition and thus face difficulties. Originally, Yonsei should operate with tuition, money transferred from the corporate body, donations, government aid, and earnings from rental of school facilities and so forth, with an adequately balanced inflow of money from each source. Instead, the current dependency on tuition is about 46%, according to the total 2015 budget for the Sinchon campus. The relatively low inflow of funds from the corporate body can be justified, as it has contributed much to the Baekyang-ro reconstruction project, according to Park. However, the critical problem is that the government subsidy for the operation of the school accounts for merely 0.7% of the total budget of the Sinchon campus, and government aid allocated to scholarships accounts for 2.5%.
Despite its failure to provide enough financial support for operating universities, the government has insisted that it would cut National Grant Type II if universities increase their tuition fees. In South Korea, the government provides scholarships for students from low-income households to provide for a more equal education opportunity. Unlike National Grant Type I, the funds of National Grant Type II are given directly to educational institutions and subsidize the students’ tuition along with National Grant Type I. With National Grant Type II, the government is pressuring schools to lower tuition without even giving adequate aid that would enable them to do so. Moreover, the amount of National Grant Type II to be given to each school is determined by the institution’s effort to suppress tuition increases. Therefore, universities are facing hardships, threatened by the government to maintain or decrease the tuition if they seek to provide appropriate scholarships for its students, while there is little financial aid that could offset a decrease in tuition.
As a matter of fact, the government does not have the legal obligation to subsidize higher education. As according to the Fundamentals of Education Act 8: Compulsory Education, six years of primary school and three years of middle school is compulsory for all citizens of South Korea, while 4 years of university education is optional. Therefore, the government insists on the Users Pay Principle regarding higher education, according to the thesis published by the Korean Council For University Education. According to the Users Pay Principle, students are regarded as consumers, and the tuition fee they pay is justified as the price for receiving higher education. Thus, the government considers that it has expected families to pay university tuition expenses on their own, while in reality, high tuition greatly disadvantages students of low-income families in receiving decent higher education opportunities.
Additionally, a pledge that President Park Geun-hye made cutting university tuition in half, with the purpose of relieving financial pressure on households turns out to have numerous flaws. Mainly, the budget allocated from the government to fulfill this pledge is not enough to cover half the current tuition of every university in Korea. The problem is that the government also attributes the responsibility of operating the university to the school alone - providing insufficient financial aid for school operations while also failing to keep its pledge to reduce tuition fees. This eventually leads schools to depend solely on earnings from tuition, while imposing an undue burden of high tuition on students. Regardless of the students’ situations, it is not easy to reduce tuition because the school leans heavily on tuition to cover its primary expenses. In a long-term perspective, such dependency on earnings from tuition due to lack of government aid can be even more detrimental, as it could hinder the development of proper education infrastructures, according to the thesis mentioned above.
Furthermore, the asymmetric budget allocation to Wonju Campus further impedes the efforts of the Tuition Review Committee to lower tuition fees. The tuition dependency at the Wonju Campus is about 67%, which is 19% higher than that of the Sinchon Campus. According to Kim Tae-hyun, the president of the Students’ Union of Wonju Campus and a member of the Tuition Review Committee, the insufficient budget allocated to Wonju Campus indicates that the corporate body of Yonsei does not acknowledge that Wonju Campus has potential for further development. Regarding the high dependency on tuition, it is harder for Kim to endeavor to lower the tuition of the Wonju Campus, even though he is indeed a member of the Tuition Review Committee.
As a natural consequence of such fundamental drawbacks, the bottom line of three conferences held this year in January by the Tuition Review Committee of Yonsei was to maintain the tuition fees of the Undergraduate School, Special Graduate School and Professional Graduate School, while increasing the tuition for theGraduate School by 1.5%. At the last meeting, the student members claimed that although they agree that a large budget for university operations and development is certainly needed, the pressure should not be on student households. They asserted that providing fair opportunity for education is of utmost importance, and thus reducing the tuition by 2% would be appropriate. However, as a result of the vote held on the third conference regarding whether to decrease or maintain the tuition, the tuition was decided to be kept flat. As in previous years, the conferences held this year were once again used merely as a means to justify the arrangement of a still expensive tuition.
Infographic 2: Budget of Yonsei University Sinchon Campus of 2015
Earnings from tuition: 46.4%
Money transferred from the corporate body and other donations: 16.4%
Government subsidy for operation: 0.7%
Government subsidy for scholarship: 2.5%
Earnings from commissions and rental of school facilities: 6.1%
Earnings from non-educational activities: 3.6%
Other earnings (investments, interest, liabilities): 24.2%
The road ahead
The following is what was claimed at the press conference held on Jan. 28: “The solution is clear. The society and government should acknowledge the academic contribution of universities and accordingly provide adequate support. Education is a fundamental right that everyone should equally receive. Educational opportunity should be provided according to the students’ ability and willingness, regardless of their economic backgrounds.”
As clearly stated, the government should expand financial support for private universities. A notable example of a government which seeks to alleviate the burdens on universities is the U.S. government. In the United States, most private and public universities are categorized as 501 (c) organizations, also known as tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. Such organizations are exempt from federal income taxes, and receive unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations, and unions. According to the Association of American Universities, the federal government admits that the university fosters the productivity of citizens and development of the state, and thus regards subsidizing research funds as a long-term investment for the country.
Although the tuition fees of many private universities in the United States, including top Ivy League universities such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton University, are much higher than that of other countries, the portion of tuition that each household has to bear is much lower than the amount subsidized by the government. In fact, the higher the tuition, the more financial aid the student receives. In this way, students of universities which are acknowledged for their contribution to society are supported appropriately, quite in contrast to the situation in Korea.
Another change that the government should make is to legislate a complementing system that could ensure that student members and university representatives on the Tuition Review Committee could find common ground in their discussions.Under the current law, several loopholes exist, which hinder the committee from making fair and effective decisions regarding tuition arrangements. For instance, the current composition of the Tuition Review Committee at Yonsei is perfectly legal, while in reality, it is a structure in which its student members are naturally disadvantaged and their voices are liable to be ignored. In the current voting system in which the majority determines the winner, students also face hardships in getting the desired results because they are one person short compared with the university representatives. Therefore, amendments should be made as student members of the committee have suggested: the final decision should be agreed upon by more than 2/3 of the participants. Moreover, several conditions should be made legally binding. The required number of conferences of the Tuition Review Committee to be held each year also needs to be clearly stated. For instance, the meetings would have to be held at least more than three times annually for more in-depth discussion. Furthermore, a fixed deadline for transferring requested documents to committee members should also be included in the amendments.
Concerning the case of Wonju Campus, according to Kim, students based at
of Sinchon Campus should pay attention to the current situation and strive to make changes together. Meanwhile, the school should create a sustainable development plan for the Wonju campus. As Kim said, “The eagle of Yonsei cannot fly high with only one wing.”
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It is an undeniable fact that the Tuition Review Committee has failed to achieve its initial roles. With the current structure, the Tuition Review Committee is nothing more than a nominal committee that merely serves to justify the high tuition rates fixed by the school. However, a notable difference this year is that the Students’ Unions of Yonsei University and other private universities in Seoul united to make changes in the current tuition arranging system and the unbalanced structure of university finance. As these schools voiced out loud, the government should recognize the educational value of universities and provide appropriate aid. Education should be approachable for anyone, regardless of their economic standing. The government should be urged to increase financial aid to universities and make amendments in the laws that would thus empower the Tuition Review Committee to influence the university, and ultimately, succeed in reducing the tuition burden.