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Korean Higher Education for the 21st Century2010-12-03Hit:9556

Korean Higher Education for the 21st Century

Written by KAIST Business School Dean Ravi Kumar

The 20th century was one of amazing scientific discoveries (from sub-atomic to constellations), medical progress (from antibiotics to genetic decoding and cloning), transportation mechanisms (from cars to space shuttles), economic miracles (from mass production and global trading to immense physical wealth creation) and great technological achievements in computing, communications and consumer electronics. The role of research and higher education played a significant role in supporting and furthering the advances of the 20th century.

The 21st century poses the world a set of different challenges compared to the 20th century. One of the first is the access and distribution of the gains made in the 20th century to everyone in the world. The human condition has to be improved drastically—the gap between the haves and the have-nots has increased a lot in many countries. Fundamental medical care is still not available to millions in the world nor is water and sanitary conditions. Such access and distribution is heavily dependent on the energy and raw material resources of the earth— the current models of human lifestyles and economic growth is just not sustainable. And more importantly, scientists warn us that our current life style and economic models have harmed our planet over the last century and pose significant challenges of global warming and climate change that will affect our children and grand-children.

Every country, including Korea, has to ask: where does higher education stand in its capabilities to unleash another century of great progress in solving these challenges and providing a better future for mankind?

Korean society has a great respect for education and it is said that Sungkyunkwan University has its roots in a higher education institution for Confucian scholars established in 1398. All the Korean students that I have seen and had the privilege to teach have been hard-working and diligent. The Korean government has spent enormous resources to ensure that they have one of the highest rates of completion of upper secondary and tertiary school education in the world. And until 1995, the Korean government also regulated and controlled a range of activities within higher education, including who can, and how to, run a higher education institution, admission procedures and allocation of student quotas to various departments and schools in universities, how much tuition could be charged and personnel policies of professors. In 1995, some regulations were weakened liberalizing higher education licenses, giving control to the educational institutions in admitting, and managing the internal distribution of, students. But by and large, in my opinion, higher education in Korea is still heavily regulated and micro-managed as compared to their western peer institutions.

Korean higher education, for all its great achievements in literacy rates and creating an educated population domestically, has been playing catch-up to the western world. But now that Korea has arrived as a developed country and as the 15th largest in nominal GDP, Korean higher education needs to make an impact on, and influence, global challenges and issues. Is it motivated, structured, governed and funded for such success? I believe, not yet.

Korea’s higher education institutions have developed into a hierarchical structure, in terms of rankings and student demand. Rankings by national newspapers/journals usually put KAIST, Postech, Seoul National, Korea and Yonsei (in no particular order) as the top 5 universities. While Korea’s spending on higher education is one of the highest, the funding from government and public sources is much smaller than in other developed countries; nevertheless, Korean government still exercises considerable control over higher education. In terms of research productivity, as measured by peer-refereed journals in Social citation Index or ranking by other agencies (QS, Shanghai Jiao Tong University survey, etc), Korean universities do not do very well.

The key question to ask is: will the top undergraduate and professional students from all over the world come to Korean universities and pay for their education here? Will the top doctoral students, graduated PhDs and faculty in the world come to Korea to work on research with faculty here? Will the top companies in the world come here to recruit our graduates and fund our faculty research? Will faculty in Korean institutions be able to commit to solving the world’s challenges and be at the fore-front of knowledge creation?

Korean government, with the help of their entrepreneurs and hard-working employees, has brilliantly evolved successful companies that can compete with the best in the world. So, why not in the higher education industry? In my short experience here, due to lack of trust and the preservation of harmony amongst various universities, the Korean government tends to micro-manage higher education, under-funds it and does not have a strategy to create outstanding universities.

So, what are some of the hall-marks of the western system of higher education, such as the US, that has produced many of the great innovations of the 20th century? First of all, government should setup architectures for higher education governance but allow autonomy and freedom for higher education administrators and faculty to innovate and be creative to compete with the world’s best— let go of micro-managing these institutions. Second, higher education is not a cost—it is an investment and students have to be given financing opportunities by the government to invest in their own future. Third, the realization that higher education is expensive and the benefits are great—so, government funding of research is essential and can be directed towards addressing the challenges facing society. Fourth, government should ensure that businesses and institutions that make use of the human resources and research knowledge that are the output of higher education play an integrative role in the governance of higher education. Fifth, government, on behalf of society, needs to hold higher education institutions and their stakeholders accountable—set up measurement of outcomes and desired results that benefit society.

Other countries in Asia are already doing this. Singapore and Hong Kong come to mind, at least in the Business School area, where they have become very competitive globally in attracting top faculty and students. So, to secure its own future and make an impact on the challenges facing the world in the 21st century, Korean government, higher education faculty and administrators, their governing boards and businesses/institutions need to cooperate to develop the world class higher education institutions that Korea deserves.

Contact : Lee, Sohyun ( sohyun.c.lee@kaist.ac.kr )