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(News Focus) Korean society groaning under academic inflation
By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, July 24 (Yonhap) -- Academic inflation has again emerged as a hot-button issue in South Korea, as the Lee Myung-bak government is pushing to reduce discrimination against non-college graduates and weed out uncompetitive universities.

   In Korea, where more than 80 percent of high school graduates go on to university, academic inflation, which refers to depreciation of degrees, has long been a chronic social problem.

   The issue has captured fresh public attention as rival parties competitively pledge to cut college tuitions by up to half to woo votes ahead of next year's parliamentary and presidential elections.

   Critics warn that indiscriminate fiscal subsidies to fulfill the pledges would only further increase the number of advanced diplomas and worsen academic inflation and unemployment among college graduates.

   Government data show that the number of four-year universities in South Korea nearly doubled from 108 in 1995 to 196 this year. Accordingly, the number of four-year university graduates surged from 330,000 in 1995 to 560,000 in 2008. On top of that, the number of people who obtained doctorate degrees last year topped 10,000.

   With the local job market flooded with advanced degree holders, a growing number of college graduates are competing with high-school graduates for such menial service jobs as cleaning the streets, cracking down on parking violators and manning the bank counters.

   Nowadays, newspaper articles on doctorate degree holders applying for street cleaners or the lowest civil service positions are no longer uncommon.

   When Kim Jin-ae graduated from a commercial high school as one of top 30 graders in the early 1980s, she had several career options: work as a bank teller, or as a financial planner at insurance companies.

   "Even before I graduate, I received job offers from several banks and insurance companies as they wanted employees who can read and interpret account books," said the 44-year-old Kim, who now holds a senior post in a local bank in the southeastern city of Daegu.

   "In the past years, however, I have hardly seen new employees hired right after getting out of high schools. Nearly all newcomers have college degrees, and some even have a master's degree for a bank teller job."

Posters advertising a job fair for vocational high school graduates. (Yonhap)

The trend has gradually waned, especially in the wake of 1997 Asian financial crisis. Many companies and financial firms laid off workers and delayed hiring new ones, resulting in high rates of unemployment and temporary workers among young people.

   Last year, non-regular workers accounted for 21.3 percent of the total work force in South Korea, the fourth-highest among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), of which South Korea is a member.

   This trend has intensified a race for higher academic qualifications even for jobs that were previously filled by people with lower degrees such as high school graduates.

   "Academic inflation occurs when university graduates take up work that was not formerly done by graduates of a certain level. The minimum job requirements have been inflated academically for low-level jobs in South Korea," said Park Jae-hwan, who teaches business administration at Chung-Ang University. "Worsening academic inflation creates inefficiency in both society and economy."

An exhibition promoting admission into vocational high schools in Seoul. (Yonhap)

A recent job market situation illustrates this trend. As many as 63 people applied for five job openings for street cleaners in a Seoul district ward in 2009. Eleven of them were college graduates, including a 37-year-old man with a doctoral degree in physics.

   A street cleaner receives over 30 million won (US$28,530) in the first year and can work up to age of 60. The retirement age for them is higher than most others who work for big companies.

   Far too many students come out of college with substantial debts that plague them even after marriage. Many students pay over 8 million won ($7,200) in tuitions last year, with students majoring in medicine, art and engineering paying more -- nearly 10 million won.

   As of last year, eight out of 10 high school graduates enter colleges, while half of them find jobs when they graduate with bachelor's degrees, according to government figures.

   "As there was a consensus that entering college is a must-thing-to-do, more students have applied for college admission in the recent years," said Kim Jung-jin, a teacher in charge of college counseling at a women's commercial high school. "When they face the high wall of job market four or five years later, many of them would complain that time and money spent on college education was not as much worthwhile as they had expected."

   "Probably now is the time to think again about why we require so many years of study before getting a proper job. In fact, some of the education they receive is not necessary for the required work," Kim added.

   Experts see low-ranking schools will soon see a sharp drop in their enrollments.

   In order to accelerate the elimination of uncompetitive schools, a college restructuring project has been underway to weed out poorly managed colleges. Those schools will face such disadvantages as restricting student loans and cutting state budgets, according to government officials.

   President Lee, a vocational high school graduate who went to the prestigious Korea University, also called for a restructuring of colleges as a condition for providing government subsidies.

   "Not everybody has to go to universities," Lee said on his recent visit to an industrial complex. "Vocational schools can cooperate with companies to help their graduates find jobs, and they can attend schools in night time."

President Lee Myung-bak (fourth from L) with vocational high school students. (Yonhap)

As part of efforts to find jobs for occupational high school graduates, the government last year instructed state-run agencies and companies to scrap the minimum academic requirements for applicants.

   Under the new policy, the Industrial Bank of Korea (IBK), for the first time in 14 years, has recently hired 20 vocational high school graduates. The Korea Development Bank (KDB) also plans to hire some 150 new employees from among those who have graduated occupational high schools and provincial universities in the latter half of this year.

   Riding the trend, 18 banks plan to hire over 2,700 high school graduates in the entry-level jobs by 2013, according the Korea Federation of Banks.

   Despite government efforts to give more chances to those who learn job skills from early age, such measures could end up being a show or short-term measure as long as society maintains a high entry barrier for job seekers with lower academic degrees regardless of their potential job skills.

   "The most important part is that the government should make an environment in which youngsters can choose a career that fits their aptitude without discrimination even though they don't have a college diploma," professor Park added.