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Top>Opinion>Halving University Fees


Reiji Hirayama

Reiji Hirayama [profile]

Halving University Fees

Reiji Hirayama
Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: German Language and Literature

Read in Japanese

Highest tuition

Which country has the highest university tuition fee in the world? I expect that most people would answer the United States. Granted, prestigious American universities charge fees in excess of four million yen. But even in the U.S., tuition at public universities is not so expensive, and there are various scholarships available as well as tuition exemption measures for students from low-income families. To answer the question, the countries with the most expensive tuition are, or were, South Korea and Japan. Recently, South Korea has been pursuing a bold policy to reduce its universities’ high fees.

Tuition fee halving policy

It began in the last South Korean presidential election. Amid their country’s social problems of economic disparity and rising rate of youth unemployment, many South Koreans began to criticize the frenzied competition for university places. They insisted on the need to reform the existing situation in which the young generation cannot find employment, or enter a top-level company without graduating from one of the prestigious universities such as Seoul National University. In the last presidential election, the opposition party candidate proposed the reduction of university tuition fees by half, and the ruling party candidate Park Geun-hye responded in kind.

That is where the difference between Japanese and South Korean politics begins, as the elected President Park brought the policy of tuition fee halving into effect. In Japan, the ruling party often breaks its election pledges, and the people have become somewhat accustomed to this. But in South Korea, which is in a similarly tight fiscal situation as Japan, President Park decided to implement the halving of university fees.

Education is our hope

Take a look at the website of the South Korean Ministry of Education, equivalent to Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). There you will find this English slogan:

“Education is our hope. Education is our future.”

South Korea, like Japan, has no special natural resources and focuses on people. Education is their hope and their future. But the South Korean government believes that young people will go to university to develop their skills and contribute to society only if the country can change its highest tuition fees. Japan’s government and MEXT, on the other hand, have until now been deeply imbued with the ‘beneficiary pays’ principle, according to which the only person who gains from a university education is the one receiving it. Yet the mainstream idea worldwide is that it is not only individuals themselves who benefit from their university education, but society too.

Declining population of 18-year-olds

The South Korean government’s change of course in halving university fees has occurred against the background of a sharp decline in birth rate. The country’s falling birth rate is more serious than that of Japan’s, being among the lowest in the world. According to South Korean government statistics, the number of high school graduates was about 630,000 in 2013 but is expected to plummet to around 555,000 in 2018 and 400,000 in 2023. In a country with a population of about 50 million, less than half that of Japan, such a downward trend in youth numbers is very serious. In the context of this critical situation, the Korean government has come to believe that its previous university policy of untrammeled competition and high tuition fees can no longer develop the individual abilities of youngsters who are dwindling in number.

Changes in students

So have Korean students changed in some way since tuition fees were halved? Before the Korean government brought in its tuition fee halving policy, the University of Seoul had, from 2012, already implemented a tuition fee halving policy. This was because civic activist Park Won-soon was elected Mayor of Seoul and, being keen on fighting poverty, had campaigned on a pledge to reduce fees at the University of Seoul by half. One Japanese professor of education who investigated the changes in students at the University of Seoul after the tuition reduction found a significant transformation. Not surprisingly, their studying time increased considerably because they were spending less time doing part-time work. There were also more students doing voluntary activities, and their interest in social matters such as voting in various elections also increased. This was because students had become more conscious of their own studies being supported by society.

The way forward for Japan

As South Korea’s birthrate continues to decline sharply in this era of global competition, its government has decided to inject public funds on a large scale into young people’s education. This can be seen as an investment in the future. On the other hand, in Japan, which is faced with similar problems, there are no benefit-style scholarships for university students, and the government and MEXT have shown no clear direction to resolve the issue of high tuition fees.

In the OECD’s white paper on global education, Japan and South Korea are the only two countries that have been categorized to date as having singularly “high university tuition fees and no scholarships.” However, South Korea has set out to halve its tuition fees. If the Japanese government shows little action now, it is no exaggeration to say that Japan will lag behind global trends in university education and that its future will look bleak.

Reiji Hirayama
Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: German Language and Literature
Professor Hirayama was born in 1951 in Niigata City. He left without completing the doctoral program of the Graduate School of Humanities, University of Tokyo (majoring in German Literature). After serving as a lecturer at Yamagata University and others, he has served on the Faculty of Law, Chuo University (in charge of German language studies) since 1984. His areas of specialization are German language and German culture. He is currently conducting research into 18th-Century German literature and thought, such as Lessing and Goethe. Professor Hirayama is also researching the culture of the German Jews and the people who helped to save Jews from the holocaust.
In terms of his hobbies, when he was an elementary school student Professor Hirayama admired famous Rakugo performer Sanyutei Ensho, and he aimed to become a Rakugo performer himself. When he was a junior high and high school student, he admired graphic novels and aimed to become a manga artist (he applied for the Newcomer Prize at the Shonen Magazine twice but his work was not selected). When he was a university student, he wrote novels for dojinshi (common interest magazines with a small readership). None of these efforts were successful.