“Wipe them off the face of the earth”

If you don’t like who dictates your tuition fees, ‘wipe them off the face of the earth’

UK schools introduced their first tuition fees in 1998. Up until then, higher education had always been free, costing nothing more than just living expenses. Even when colleges were no longer free, an annual cap of £1,000 was placed upon the amount of money schools could charge. Considering the current exchange rate is 2,000 Korean won per British pound, the tuition was at most just a little less than 2 million won.

(average Korean private college tuition is around 7.8 million won in 2014. Only 18% of colleges in Korea are public, compared to 70% in the US, France 86%, and Germany 95%)

But this cap tripled to £3,000 in 2004, and then again up to 9,000 — nine fold jump just over 12 years.

PPP-adjusted $US

As in many other European societies, British parents rarely support their children financially for college education. Author Doris Lessing vividly portrayed how they are, almost cold-heartedly, unsupportive of their children when it comes to education spending. My former British co-worker, an old man, once nonchalantly bragged that he chipped in for paying off his children’s student debt “out of pity”, and how lucky they were to have him.

Since parents are unwilling to shore their children up, all those loans continue haunting them after having freshly graduated and stepped into the real world. Their paycheques are withheld to clear debts, leaving only small margin for the actual living.

But this millennium continues to make them take on more loans — for house, for insurances, for credit cards, and for the welfare of NEXT generation. It’s a lifetime liability imposed by the world where it is impossible to live normally without being indebted.

Going French in London

Cornered and upset, the students rose up. Four major unrests broke out in early winter of 2010 when the tuition fee increase was announced. Unrests spiralled into mayhem, in which even the crown prince couple’s car got attacked by the angry Londoners, but all to no avail. The series of protests were eventually quelled by police crackdown; and the tuition cap was placed by the parliament, as planned, on £9,000.

British press was overall critical towards the excessive police crackdown, but they were equally cynical to the student movements. One of the comments that left me with an impression, mixed with a nod of head, was this:

If they feel so strongly, the students can organise themselves and can wipe the Lib Dems off the face of the earth at the next general election.

I read an article last May 20th when Mr. Chung Mong-joon, a Seoul mayor candidate and chairman of his own university, said: “I understand the cause behind ‘Half-price tuition’ bill, but I am afraid it would demote the social prestige of our highest education institutions, not to mention the possibility of tainting the respect toward college graduates.” Now, that really confused me honestly.

Mr. Chung the Prestigious talks about prestige

So our ‘highest education institutions’ by definition deserve expensive tuition fees? And the ‘respect’ for college students and graduates equates to how much they have paid for school? Hopefully I do not sound idealistic when I say the true value of a college, or its students, should be assessed by the depth of knowledge they learn from their classes, and how it carries down to their life following the graduation.

Do schools earn prestige because their tuitions are expensive? No. Schools providing quality education with affordable prices should get better reputation. What is the point of expensive schools that only expensive people can afford?

On May 28th, the very same Mr. Chung — a graduate of Johns Hopkins SAIS who could afford US$ 47,000 per year — claimed that Continental-style free education should not be necessarily deemed successful because “everyone calls pricey American universities more prestigious than the French ones.” This remark, again, utterly confuses me. What I do get is that he clearly saw universities and colleges as some Gucci and Armani bags. If you are rich, you shall buy those Gucci all you want. But what about those who are not rich?

Lucky to graduate — or are you?

Fortunately to Mr. Chung, Korean university students do not go on a street rampage, destroying businesses and vandalising public properties. They all behave nicely. It might be because many parents bear the burden of their tuitions. But once those parents are broke for whatever reason, their children often have to take care of everyone collectively, unlike the independent European young adults. Korea is no United Kingdom. Parents and children are so commonly one ‘community of fate’. It might also be because Korean students rather focus on getting various certificates and jobs instead of putting out demonstrations. Life after school in Korea is of course different from that of UK’s, probably harsher.

Chronically lacking the basic social safety net, while education still remains as the common ‘fixed cost’ on our balance sheets, how can we break through those clouds of apathetic jeers chattering “you youngsters should be grateful that you can study in colleges”? If you don’t mind them, you can stay at home. But if you do, come outside. Cast your ballots, and “wipe them off the face of the earth at the next general election.”