Student Protests Again Shake Up Seoul

South Korean university students are again on the march, holding daily demonstrations in Seoul and other cities across the country, protesting high tuition fees. They've brought the issue of overpriced education to the forefront of public discussion and the government is searching for answers.

The protests are regarded as the latest phase in a backlash against the South Korean elite, brought on by rising prices and inequality and a scarcity of white-collar jobs in the wake of graduation. The government has considerable reason to be concerned about the protests. Student protest has been a potent force since protesters brought down the one-time strongman Syngman Rhee in 1960. Student protest resulted in martial law in 1980 and sank the government of President Chun Doo Hwan in 1987, which resulted in profound political change and the first full democratization of the country.

For years protest was a spring ritual as students were filmed pouring flammable liquids onto phalanxes of riot-gear clad policemen, setting them alight. A rattled government is looking forward to the monsoon season, the period of storms that drenches the peninsula in steamy rain for much of July. Nobody likes the weather, they’re just eager to have the crowds of angry, protesting students kept inside.

Where in the past it has been protest at the political situation, this time it is actually education that has brought the students to the streets. Among OECD countries, the cost of tuition in South Korea is second only to the US, averaging about US$8,000 per year. Universities in South Korea are often for-profit ventures that are accused of overcharging students then providing them with only mediocre educations. Students argue that they’re getting a poor return on the money they spend. Universities spend an average of $8,920 on each student, far below the OECD average of $12,907.

“The fees are too high for students to pay by themselves, said Kim Do-ah, a 2011 graduate of Korea University now working for a consulting firm in Seoul. “If they can’t depend on their parents, they won’t be able to study.”

The students are calling on President Lee Myung-bak to make good on a 2007 campaign promise to cut tuition by half. This has sparked a great deal of debate but yielded meager results. Both political parties held extensive meetings this week with lawmakers, academics, students and officials from the Ministry of Education on the issue but failed to reach any conclusions.

The Democratic Party has pledged a larger tuition cut than the ruling Grand National Party, which has argued for a contribution preference admission system. That has been unpopular with many who are displeased with the country’s growing income inequality. The most widespread demands are to make education more accessible for middle and lower income families. There has yet to be serious agreement on how to make that happen.

Some are pointing to professors as a large part of the problem. According to 2009 statistics, salaries for teachers and other staff are the largest budget items for universities, accounting for 53.4 percent. South Korean university professors are reputedly held to comparatively weak standards regarding teaching and research.

A major probe into universities’ finances has been announced by the Board of Audit and Inspection.

Around 80 percent of young South Koreans attend university, which is an incredibly large portion, and there simply aren’t white-collar jobs for all of them. The country’s conglomerates are making record profits but hiring fewer new employees than ever. This leaves many students feeling cheated upon graduation.

A study published in early April 2011 by the Hankyoreh newspaper showed a 73 percent rise in conglomerate profits alongside 10 percent growth in employment and 1.3 percent growth in workers’ income under the Lee administration.

While there is an overload of educated job seekers, there are labor shortages in the manufacturing and agriculture sectors. It would make economic sense to encourage blue-collar work, but those are jobs most young South Koreans don’t care for.

Many students feel their universities are leaving them unprepared for a competitive job market. “They have some programs to help senior students to prepare for jobs but most people don’t join those because the quality of those programs is not good and the information is not good. They do nothing for us. We just pay high tuition fees and we are eager to get good grades but the school doesn't do enough for us,” said Yoon Yong-jin, a fourth-year computer-engineering student at Sejong University in Seoul.

The opposition democratic party has suggested that the government make up for the shortfall by raising upper-class income and corporate taxes. There is internal squabbling in the ruling GNP between those loyal to President Lee and party members seeking to distance themselves from a leader who is already being called a lame duck. The opposition Democratic Party has criticized the GNP for inaction.

Students are now stuck in the latest tug of war between opposing sides. The eventual results of this debate will provide insight into the country’s evolving political identity ahead of the 2012 elections.