The Education Ministry and Rep. Kim Sang-min of the ruling Saenuri Party held a forum on Tuesday on the Park Geun-hye administration's "half-price" college tuition policy. In a self-styled pat on the back, they deemed it a "mission accomplished" and talked about future challenges.
Their "celebration," however, seemed to leave many college students perplexed. They asked how the government could deem their job complete when actual tuition costs remain largely unchanged, let alone cut in half as promised by Park as one of her key presidential campaign pledges.
According to Korea Higher Education Research Institute, the average tuition for private and public colleges in 2014 were 7.34 million won (S$9,129) and 4.18 million won, respectively, compared to 7.39 million and 4.19 million in 2012 when the policy officially kicked off.
"What has changed? My friends and I still pay pretty much the same amount for tuition," said a student surnamed Yoo at Ewha Womans University.
Such disparity in perception stems from the fact that the governmental policy, while called half-priced tuition, is actually about reducing the financial burden for tuition by repressing tuition hikes, encouraging colleges to expand their scholarship programs and increasing state-funded scholarships for students from low-income families.
According to the ministry, the annual college tuition at all public and private colleges reached about 14 trillion won in 2011.
The state scholarship programme for 2015 is earmarked at 3.9 trillion won, while the colleges' overall scholarships account for 2.4 trillion won, and the accumulated amount of tuition cuts between 2012 and 2015 is expected to be about 710 billion won. This adds up to about 7 trillion won, half of the 14 trillion won, thus halving the financial burden on class fees for students, at least according to the ministry.
Mission accomplished? Hardly.
The 2.4 trillion won in school scholarships is a key factor in the policy. But the colleges were already providing 1.8 trillion won worth of scholarships in 2011, independent of the half-price tuition policy.
While the actual increase is only by 600 million won, the ministry was seen to be highlighting the total amount of 2.4 trillion won, leading many to misperceive the actual scope of government-led measures as bigger than it actually is.
"(The ministry) is just basically playing with words here. By definition, additional acquirement (of scholarships) should be separated from the already existing ones," an official from the KHERI pointed out.
Apart from the contentious use of the term "half-price tuition," there is also no guarantee that colleges nationwide would continue to refrain from raising tuition fees.
Earlier this year, Ewha announced that it would raise its tuition by 2.4 per cent, the maximum amount set by the government this year. But after an unscheduled visit by Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea, the university abruptly announced that it would freeze the fees, sparking suspicions that Hwang's visit may have pressured one of the priciest universities in Korea to alter its plans.
This raises another question about the policy's sustainability: Will the minister have to pay a special visit to each university and college every time it decides to defy the government guidelines?
In its earlier report, the KHERI has pointed out that the cut-price tuition policy depends largely on the colleges' efforts. Even Hwang himself has acknowledged that securing various sources of funding to supplement the policy was crucial to keeping it running.
The KHERI official also pointed out that the ministry has drastically cut the budget for "type 2" scholarships. The type 2 scholarship is provided as an incentive for colleges that choose not to raise tuition.
"Right after the type 2 was introduced, the average tuition at private and public colleges dropped by 4.7 per cent and 3.9 per cent. But after the budget cut, the cut rate dwindled noticeably," he said. According to the KHERI, the tuition cut rates at the colleges dropped to 0.3-0.5 per cent below those in 2013-2014.
There has even been talk about abolishing the type 2 scholarship altogether, but experts have raised concerns that it will lead to a series of tuition hikes.
How long can the Education Ministry repress overall tuition hikes? If the colleges choose not to comply, what would be its countermove? Is it even plausible as a long-term plan?
The "success" of the half-price college tuition policy comes with multiple strings attached ― ones that the government has to address before touting its "accomplishments."