ON JAN. 21, 2018, the President of Sungshin Women’s University announced reform plans to transform the university into a co-ed school. However, the plans failed due to the overwhelming opposition of the enrolled students. This case has not been an isolated incident. Other women’s universities in Korea have announced plans to unisexualize their institutions recently.
Women’s universities on the brink of extinction?
In times when women were expected to remain at home and had little opportunity to study, women’s universities were once regarded as guardians of women’s education rights. Considering this essential role, most college-ready women preferred applying to and attending women’s universities. However, with a massive change in the social atmosphere towards women’s stances, women’s universities face an intense crisis.
The attempt to unisexualize a women’s university was tried several times before Sungshin Women’s University. In 2015, both Duksung and Sookmyung Women’s University had endeavored to widen their spectrum of students from only female students to both male and female. Before that, Ewha Women’s University had gone through a constitution appeal to allow the entrance of male students into their law school.
As seen through these cases, several women’s universities have attempted to induce this major change. Though there are strong oppositions, allowing male students in will be beneficial for the schools. With the decline of Korea’s school-age population, women’s universities have been hit much harder than co-ed colleges. Furthermore, as women’s universities are showing low post-graduation employment rates, a potential cut of government funding has forced the schools to consider drastic options.
The declining number of future college students
A major reason that co-education has been proposed is because the number of future college students is declining. Since women’s universities are limited to a pool of only female prospective students, they naturally have a major disadvantage during the university entrance procedure. As the number of students declines yearly, it is predicted that women’s universities will have a harder time finding students who meet their standards.
According to the document ‘Estimates of Future National Populations’ (Jeon guk jang rae in gu chu gye) of the National Statistical Office, the school-age population has been steadily decreasing since 2010. In fact, the number of test-takers in 2018 was 590,357—12,406 people less than the number of test-takers in 2017. According to the research of Yoo Ki-hong, a member of the National Assembly, the “reversal phenomenon” is expected to occur in 2020, suggesting that the number of entrance quotas will eventually exceed the number of test-takers. Thus, most universities will have a hard time filling their entrance quotas; this problem will be exacerbated in female-only universities.
Perhaps a more serious problem is that female students are avoiding women’s universities due to stereotypes. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, Lee Si-yoon (Soph., Dept. of Business Admin., Dongguk Univ.), a female undergraduate, showed apprehension about attending a women’s university. “First, it is harder to compete with women. Since there is a stronger tendency to study hard and be diligent, it is obvious that it will be harder to get a good GPA when you attend a women’s university,” Lee said. Surprisingly, this view is not exclusive to Lee but rather a prevalent view among female students. According to a survey conducted by Haneul Education in 2016, only 7.5% of female students preferred women’s universities over co-ed universities. The top three reasons for the avoidance were ‘difficulty of getting a good GPA’, ‘limitations on creating social relationships’ and ‘existence of superior co-ed universities.’ Since even their targeted population exhibits a reluctance of attending, it has become exceedingly difficult for universities to select qualified students for admission.
Women’s universities are also facing serious financial difficulties. Since tuitions are fixed, it became hard for universities to gather a massive budget from students. To make matters worse, the government set up a new standard for determining funds for universities. After ranking the universities based on various factors, the lower-ranked universities will stop receiving funds.
One of the main factors the government evaluates is the post-graduation employment rate. As women’s universities have posted lower post-graduate employment rates than their co-ed counterparts, they have become increasingly susceptible to a subsequent decrease in government funding. According to the Ministry of Education, the average university employment rate in 2016 was 64.4%, which was 17.7% higher than the average women’s university employment rate of 47%. Each women’s university shows low employment rates: Sungshin Women’s University 46.7%, Duksung Women’s University 45.5%, Dongduk Women’s University 42.5%; even the prestigious Ewha Women’s University had an employment rate of only 47.5%. The cessation of funding is not just a possible warning but an immediate reality. Due to its poor performance, funding of Duksung Women’s University has already been terminated.
Weak science and engineering field
Likely the most crucial factor to explain the low employment rates of these single-sex universities is the weakness of their science and engineering fields. Science and engineering fields have shown the strongest numbers in terms of employment, and according to the statistics from the Ministry of Education in 2016, natural science and engineering fields showed similar or higher employment rates of 61.9% and 73.3% respectively, than humanity and social science fields. The humanity and social science fields showed employment rates of 57.5% and 62.3%, respectively.
Even though it is obvious that having strong science and engineering fields increases employment rates for graduates, women’s universities are not providing enough support for the technical areas. Among the 14 women’s universities in Korea, only Ehwa, Sookmyung, and Duksung Women’s Universities have established independent engineering colleges. The other universities do not have independent engineering fields or subordinate them in a natural science field. As the science and engineering fields of women’s colleges lags behind those of other co-ed colleges, the female institutions likewise have fallen behind in performance.
Are women’s universities really necessary?
Even though most are aware of the crisis women’s universities face, there are still voices insisting that women’s universities remain. Since women’s universities in Korea were established to guarantee the right of education for women, these colleges possess a rich history and have been the forerunners to foster women leaders. People who believe in the continual existence of strictly female-only universities emphasize this importance and the intrinsic, historical value these institutions hold. They believe women’s universities are the symbol of women’s rights in Korea.
Women’s universities have also had an important role of providing more opportunities for women to work autonomously, since many positions of student council and other leading roles are exclusively open to women. According to an interview with Oh My News, Jeong Hyun-kyeong (Reporter, Sungshin Univ.) stated that no woman reliant on man can be found in a women’s university. In a society marked by patriarchal traditions, these universities hold paramount importance in cultivating strong, female leadership.
Women’s university also provide in-depth research and classes about women’s studies. Since women’s studies focuses on the female gender, it is more practical and efficient for women’s universities to conduct the studies. In fact, Dongduk Women’s University has one of the best women’s studies programs. Interestingly, it is the only university to have a separate building for a women’s studies department.
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It is undeniable that women’s universities are losing popularity and it is time for them to promote innovative changes distinct from other co-ed universities. However, opening their institutions to both males and females and giving up their unique features as women-only universities should not be considered as the only solutions. Rather, women’s universities should find a way to prolong their meaningful history and enhance their stance as institutions that foster female leaders.