Should higher education institutions be a place for intellectual growth or job preparation? A controversy over exactly that question recently ensued when the Korean Ministry of Education implemented a program aimed at increasing the country’s engineering ranks, and winnowing its supply of liberal and fine arts graduates.
On May 3, 2016, the Korean Ministry of Education revealed the list of 21 universities that will benefit from the largest government subsidy program for higher education in the nation’s history. The PRIME Project (Program for Industrial Needs- Matched Education) will award approximately 200 billion won (USD $1.8 billion) to the selected higher education institutions.
PRIME requires rapid action. The 21 selected institutions open new science and engineering departments, and close or merge existing (primarily liberal or applied arts) departments for the 2017 admission cycle. Going forward, admissions quotas will allocate a specific number of seats to both science and arts-related majors, with the lion’s share of slots allocated to engineering programs. PRIME has had a ripple effect that extends well beyond the 21 named institutions: Most of South Korea’s non-PRIME universities are planning to adjust admission quotas for students in affected disciplines, adding engineering slots, and reducing seats for students in the humanities, social sciences, and fine arts.
The Motivation Behind PRIME: Employment
PRIME was introduced to address current and future employment concerns. The program was originally initiated by the Ministry of Education based on the findings of a 2014 government report , which predicted that in ten years, Korea would have a shortage of 260,000 engineering majors and a surplus of 530,000 liberal arts, social sciences, and arts majors. PRIME seeks to address the imbalance by encouraging schools to expand their colleges of engineering, and to decrease the size of their humanities, social science and arts colleges. The funds will be allocated over three years, based on institutions’ size. PRIME also seeks to alleviate current unemployment among youth from 15 to 29 years old), which, at 12.5 percent , is the highest it’s been since the 1990s (source: Statistics Korea) . A mismatch  between graduates’ skills and job openings is viewed as one root cause behind this trend. The hope behind the rapid implementation of PRIME is that a rapid shift toward graduating trained engineers will begin to address the skills gap and so lower the youth unemployment rate.
In a culture that has historically put a high value on obtaining a well-rounded education at the tertiary level, the roll out of such major changes, especially on such a fast timeline, has raised substantial concern. At the most pragmatic level, it has created challenges for college-bound high school students, and humanities-focused undergraduates who cannot easily make the shift to engineering. The PRIME program has also raised philosophical objections. Critics argue that the heavy focus on industry-friendly majors will transform universities into little more than jobs training programs, and that the diminished focus on humanities and social sciences will make Korea’s higher education sector – which is on a rapid growth spurt focused on improving quality – less academically competitive from a global perspective.
For institutions seeking to tap into a top sender of students to North America, understanding the implications of PRIME is critical.
The PRIME Challenge for South Korean Students
The sole focus of many Korean high school students is to get into universities. Indeed, some 70 percent  of high school graduates continue their education at tertiary level and the general population has the highest tertiary education attainment among OECD countries.  It’s no overstatement to say that higher education in Korea is a requirement for success, as measured through upward mobility, financial stability ,and social recognition.
In this context, PRIME’s consequences for high school seniors in the humanities and social sciences tracks are potentially devastating. Given that the announcement of the reform happened a month after juniors in high school selected an academic track, new quotas (and widespread adoption well beyond PRIME recipients) likewise stirred up confusion among rising juniors (not to mention teachers) across the country.
Facing public criticism that current high school students enrolled in the humanities track are at an unfair disadvantage, some institutions have announced that they will allow humanities track students to apply to both the humanities and science tracks for the 2017 admission cycle. However, humanities students will have a hard time competing with their science track peers, and may be unlikely to obtain slots in science or engineering programs.
University students who are currently enrolled in departments that may merge or close also face upheaval because their curriculum plans will be changed and they are uncertain of those changes to come.
The PRIME Opportunity for U.S. Institutions
Some 210,000 Korean students studied abroad in 2015. Per the Institute for International Education (IIE), 63,710 studied in U.S. in 2014/2015, down 6.4 percent from the previous year. Still, the U.S. was the most popular destination for Korean students, followed by China, Japan, Australia and United Kingdom.
Korea has a long history of sending students to the U.S., and has, since 2012, ranked third (behind China and India) as a sender of international students to the U.S. Roughly 54 percent of those students are undergraduates; 27.6 percent are graduate students. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s “2016 Top Markets Report Education Country Case Study: South Korea ,” South Korean students studying in the U.S. pursue a varied mix of majors, with a relatively strong emphasis on fine and applied arts, and social sciences:
- 31 percent study STEM subjects, including engineering
- 16.7 percent pursue business/management degrees
- 11.9 percent study fine and applied arts
- 11.9 percent study social sciences
The remaining 28.5 percent study a range of other subjects.
In light of PRIME, the Commerce Department report makes one note of particular interest: “South Korea remains one of the countries with the largest percentage of students studying fine and applied arts, along with Taiwan at 12.6 percent and Hong Kong at 10.2 percent,” says the report. It then goes on to recommend that “[s]chools offering a specialty in this subject matter … target these markets for potential students.” The rapid rollout of PRIME may well be cause for those institutions to consider doubling down on such efforts. In the very near term, Korean undergraduate students who are determined to pursue degrees in majors in the humanities, social sciences, and fine arts will face the prospect of fewer university seats in their chosen fields – and far greater competition than they’ve seen in the past. Many may seek educational opportunities abroad.
At the masters and PhD levels, PRIME may also lead to a spike in the number of Korean students seeking degrees abroad. On the one hand, Korean university students who are currently pursuing degrees in liberal arts or social sciences may look abroad for further education. On the other, the numbers of domestically educated engineering students in Korea may rise, and may seek further education abroad. Over time, of course, the number of Korean liberal and fine arts graduates seeking advanced degrees abroad may decline, as the number of undergraduates in those fields tails off in response to PRIME.
It’s also worth noting that any spikes will occur in the context of broader demographic and economic factors that may keep overall enrollment numbers from South Korea fairly flat.
The Impact of PRIME on 50 Years of Higher Education Investment & Progress in Korea
The wisdom of implementing potentially long-lasting structural changes in higher education based on predictions about the job market a decade hence is, say many, questionable. The Korean higher education sector has experienced a tremendous rate of expansion over the last five decades; from serving about 200,000 students in the 1970s to about 3.7 million students at present time. Some of Korea’s top institutions now find their names amongst the top 500 universities in the world.
More recently, the government has been investing heavily in bringing the quality of higher education up to more competitive standards. This has largely been done by implementing plans such as “World Class University” and internationalizing the higher education sector by hosting foreign branch campuses to Incheon Free Economic Zone. While implementation of PRIME may be successful in solving unemployment and labor force issues in the shorter term, there is a potential risk of stalling the growth or even diminishing the quality of liberal arts education in the longer term. The Korean government defines higher education as “research for profound academic theory and wide ranging and detailed application methodology necessary for the development of the nation and human society, and cultivating leadership.” By this definition, it is impossible to ignore the value of a robust liberal arts education and anything that diminishes that value, may very well diminish the value of higher education on the whole.
Moreover, although the plan purports to look to the future, it may well have unintended consequences. About three years ago, Japan, Korea’s near neighbor, implemented a similar plan. The focus was to promote practical learning through a science and engineering focused curriculum, and to consolidate and reduce departments of humanities and social sciences. Eighty-six national higher education institutions participated. However, once the Japanese economy was revived, the number of college applicants applying for humanities and social sciences major again increased. Without any further economic justification for the heavy focus on science majors, the demand for liberal arts education has increased. Japan’s higher education sector cannot now fulfill the demand.