Ministerial revolving door leaves Korean universities in lurch

President forced to search for third ministry candidate since May, leaving sector rudderless as universities face enrolment decline and frozen fees

August 16, 2022
Education Minister Park Soon-ae as described in the article
Source: Getty

South Korea was poised to name what would be its fourth education minister – or candidate to hold the post – in little over three months, prompting concern that political upheaval has left the university agenda in the lurch.

Park Soon-ae resigned earlier this month just 34 days into her term, following a backlash against plans to lower the school entrance age. Her brief tenure came just months after president Yoon Suk-Yeol’s first appointee to the post, the former president of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Kim In-Chul, announced he would drop his nomination over allegations of nepotism linked to university scholarships. Yoo Eun-hae, education minister in the last administration, stepped down on 9 May.

Even for Korea – where education controversy is rife and education ministers have famously short-lived terms – it is a high rate of turnover so early into an administration, according to academics.

“President Yoon believes that urgent reforms are necessary for education…nevertheless, he couldn’t help seeking a third candidate for the education ministry just within three months of his presidency, which is unprecedented,” said Byung Rhee, a professor of higher education at Yonsei University and director of its Institute for Educational Research.

Yong-Chan Kim, a professor at Yonsei University’s department of communication, agreed.

“Scandals have always been there, [but] never before have there been so many of them in the early days of a presidency,” he said, noting another cause of controversy this August, when Korean university associations denounced a move by Kookmin University to clear the first lady, Kim Keon-hee, of plagiarism allegations. 

“It’s a very troubling situation…the current government has not been able to even deal with university-related issues,” he said.

The disruption comes at a time when the sector is squeezed from both sides, with student fees frozen for years even as dropping enrolment rates due to steep demographic decline push universities to the brink.

“The most pressing issue for most of the universities in Korea is the lack of autonomy…Korean universities, even private ones, cannot determine the amount of tuition [fees] for their students on their own,” said Professor Kim.

Yet, there were few signs that the current leadership will push forward much-needed reforms, academics said.

“My overall impression is that the Yoon government has not had a clear vision or strategies to reform Korean education and higher education for sustainable growth and nurturing of global talents,” said Terri Kim, a visiting professor at Yonsei University and honorary professor of comparative higher education at the University of East London.

She noted that even during the presidential campaign, there was no “coherent pledge for higher education” made by either of the candidates.

Despite the outsized role of education in Korean society and politics, there’s still a tendency to think of the job as something that doesn’t require a specialist, she said.

“I think there is a widespread view that everyone has an opinion on education and education is such an area that can be handled and managed regardless of the expertise or experience of the minister. Such an assumption is not applied to other sectors in Korea – such as the Ministry of Justice or Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

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