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Australia…and North Korea?

  • 26 April 2014
  • By Nick Hillman

Having travelled a lot over the last few weeks, I’ve been musing on HE in other countries. Perhaps nowhere are the differences so stark as in two of the countries I’ve visited: Australia and North Korea.

In 2012, Australia removed student number controls for undergraduate places at public universities. With a student loan system for fees and decent maintenance support, this makes it one of the most accessible HE systems in the world – as you can read about in our new reports comparing the Australian and English student loan systems. Australia’s HE system is also world-class on many measures.

But removing number controls has cost more than expected and the Australian Government has recently published an independent review of the policy. Depending on your view, removing number controls has either been more successful or less successful than expected. The review argues persuasively that it has encouraged innovation and opportunity and recommends a partial extension of the policy to other areas of HE – alongside some more controversial recommendations on how to pay for it all.

North Korea, on the other hand, has controlled access to higher education as closely as you might expect. Entry to university has relied on more than meeting the requisite academic standard. Hyok Kang’s account of growing up in North Korea during the 1990s (This is Paradise!) tells how his cousin ‘dreamed of only one thing: to go to university. He always got excellent marks, so he certainly had the ability to achieve it’. But one person’s ‘crime’ can lead to a whole family being punished. So, when the author escaped to China with his parents, it put paid to his cousin’s ambitions.

As in many other non-democratic states, higher education institutions in North Korea are often confined to one discipline area. A Pole once told me their country used to follow the same policy because students are less likely to challenge authority when they can’t  mingle. BBC’s Panorama recently visited the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology that is meant to be more open than others, but the students still have to march to breakfast, lack knowledge of the outside world and spend their ‘free’ time cleaning monuments to the regime.

Evidently, different countries’ higher education systems reflect the society in which they sit. And their graduates replicate, perpetuate and, every so often, challenge it.

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