Obsession with University Education Must End

      July 16, 2013 12:47

      A study by the Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training found that 24.6 percent of graduates of four-year universities are working in jobs for which they are overqualified. That proportion is almost three times greater than the OECD average.

      State-run Korea Gas Corporation hired 30 high school leavers early last year to set an example for other big businesses in widening their choices of new recruits beyond those with degrees. But in fact 27 of the 30 new recruits at KOGAS were university graduates who had lied about their education.

      As of 2011, 64 percent of Koreans aged 25 to 34 had university degrees, the most in the OECD, where the average is 39 percent. But the employment rate for graduates is a meager 60 percent. As of the first quarter of this year, 3.09 million degree holders are unemployed or have simply given up looking for work. A shortage of 320,000 high school leavers is expected by 2020, in contrast to a surplus of 500,000 graduates. That means more and more graduates will have to look for jobs for which they are overqualified.

      Many young Koreans are wasting time and money trying to get university degrees they will not need, creating a major headache not only for themselves and their parents but also for businesses and the government. University graduates end up earning W120 million (US$1=W1,123) less in their professional career than a high school graduate if all of the money spent on private crammers and university tuition is deducted.

      These are expenses that strain parents' finances to the point where they face poverty in their twilight years. Yet because of the persistent belief that a university education is a must, Koreans on average do not start their professional careers until they turn 26.3. That means many productive years lost.

      Experts estimate that Korea's economic growth rate would rise a full percentage point if these young people entered the workforce earlier instead of going to university to get mediocre degrees.

      If the long-standing penchant for university degrees is to change, Korea needs to create a social atmosphere that is more tolerant of high school leavers becoming CEOs, managers or senior civil servants. But already the corporate interest in hiring high-school leavers, which seemed to be gaining momentum, has cooled off, with only 13,000 more high school graduates between 20 and 24 finding jobs in April this year than in the same month last year. The on-year increase in April 2012 was a whopping 44,000.

      Businesses must boldly shatter the glass ceilings that hinder promotions and wage hikes for high school leavers and find proper roles for them to play.

      The government also needs to overhaul or shut down lackluster universities that fail to give their students the proper tools for the job market. In Japan, the number of new university applicants has been dwindling since 2007, prompting many minor colleges to go bankrupt and close down. That same phenomenon is expected to happen in Korean universities starting in 2016.

      Although the government started restructuring lackluster universities, only six out 350 universities nationwide have been closed down in the last five years. Considering the oversupply of graduates, there is definitely room for more underperforming universities to shut.


      Gone are the days of double-digit economic growth for Korea, when a university degree translated directly into employment as businesses constantly searched for new workers for their ever-expanding operations. Young Koreans must think long and hard about whether a university education really serves their best interests.

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