Student quota changes aim at growing semiconductor field

South Korea’s Education Ministry is expected to issue a decree to raise strict student quota limitations on universities to encourage institutions to open up new departments or expand existing departments to attract more students to study semiconductor technologies.

Student quotas are the mainstay of the Korean government’s policies to ensure universities in the regions remain viable as the population declines.

The government plans to increase the number of undergraduates in the semiconductor field by about 1,300 each year, many of them at universities in the Seoul metropolitan area, once the student quota cap is raised.

A recent Education Ministry survey found that 14 institutions in the Seoul metropolitan area wanted to increase their student numbers by approximately 1,266 as part of the semiconductor course expansion, while six universities in the provinces indicated an intention to increase the number of students by some 315.

Quota changes, opposed by provincial universities, were flagged in a ministry announcement in July that indicated an intention to lift restrictions on universities in order to nurture more semiconductor talent, without indicating how it would do this under an opposition-dominated legislature.

On 19 July, then deputy prime minister and minister of education Park Soon-ae announced the ‘Semiconductor-related Talent Cultivation Plan’ together with the ministries of economy and finance; science and ICT; trade, industry and energy; and employment and labour.

Ten-year plan

As many as 20 universities would be designated as specialising in semiconductors by 2026, Park said, part of a plan to train 150,000 semiconductor workers over the next decade.

That figure is more than four times the number of 36,000 semiconductor professionals the previous administration of president Moon Jae-in had in its sights.

To fund the latest plan, around US$2.8 billion will be ‘redirected’ from the 2022 education budget for early childhood, elementary and secondary education, as the school age population declines – a move that has prompted strong criticism from school teachers as being ‘short-sighted’.

According to the Korea Semiconductor Industry Association, as the semiconductor industry grows, the number of industrial workers is expected to increase from about 177,000 now to about 304,000 in 10 years’ time – with an anticipated shortfall of some 137,000.

Semiconductors – an essential component in microchips – accounted for 20% of all Korean exports in 2021. Growing the industry and increasing talent for it was among the electoral promises made by President Yoon Suk-yeol. Yoon took office in May.

“Semiconductors have been the backbone of the Korean economy, feeding people,” Yoon said during his presidential campaign. “But now competition is too fierce around the world and China is chasing after us with a force of engineers dozens of times larger than Korea’s. Our future will turn dark if we turn away.”

Yoon named Lee Jong-ho, a computer engineering professor and director of the Inter-University Semiconductor Research Center at Seoul National University, as minister of science and ICT.

The Education Ministry has also proposed a plan to relax the qualification requirements for adjunct professors and guest professors to lure them from industry.

The expected ministerial decree could include revisions to the existing higher education and private schools acts in order to lift some legally binding restrictions on student and teacher recruitment. According to the existing Higher Education Act, universities can only hire people with research achievements and experience as lecturers or teachers.

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