South Korea Overhauls Higher Education (new emphasis on English)

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Mar 17 13:42:04 UTC 2006
>>From the issue dated March 17, 2006

South Korea Overhauls Higher Education
Government and university officials clash over the future of universities


Seoul, South Korea

During the past decade, South Korea has transformed itself from a
developing nation into the world's 11th largest economy, putting
tremendous pressure on industry and the government to ensure that its
workers can handle increasingly sophisticated jobs. But universities tied
to tradition, and a dwindling number of young people, are hampering that
effort. Fed up with the resistance of academics, the government has begun
a huge overhaul of higher education, hoping for a more democratic system
but raising the ire of professors, administrators, and students who resent
the top-down approach. The Ministry of Education and Human Resource
Development wants universities to develop closer ties with industry and
create more academic programs tailored to meet the needs of the high-tech
economy. To adjust to the steady drop in college-age students due to a low
national fertility rate, it plans to close or merge one quarter of the
country's national universities.

The government also wants to, among other changes, transform national
universities from tightly controlled state institutions to self-governing
corporations, abolish automatic tenure, change student entrance
requirements, reduce the elitism attached to certain schools, and
introduce American-style graduate programs. Opposition is strong. The
National University Professors' Association is threatening to file a
complaint with a high-level court that decides constitutional issues. The
association says that the policy tramples on the autonomy of universities
and ignores the rights of professors to voice their opinions. Indeed, the
list of reforms is so long, and the reforms are so controversial, that
some university educators are dubbing them NAPO No Action, Policy Only,
says Chan Mo Park, president of Pohang University of Science and
Technology. But Mr. Park believes this is wishful thinking. He notes that
several of the government plans such as university mergers and enrollment
cuts are already under way.

Ryoo Hyea Sook, director of the planning division of Seoul National
University, thinks that the universities should resolve their own
problems. "Limiting the number of schools or students by the government is
not the best way to overcome the problems," she says. Robert B. Laughlin,
president of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, South
Korea's foremost research university, says he is "very cynical" about the
mergers of national universities, even though some have already begun. He
expects that few of these mergers will actually happen, but that the
government will slash the higher-education budget nonetheless.

Filter Out the Weak

South Koreans are intensely concerned with how their universities and
their research rank worldwide. Even as the government is shrinking public
higher education, it is pouring new money into university research and
academic programs, rewarding institutions when they perform well, and
threatening to withhold money from those that perform poorly. The national
legislature set aside $2.03-billion in December for the new seven-year
Brain Korea 21 program, through which the education ministry finances
additional training and education for faculty members and students and
promotes cooperation between universities and industry, especially in
technology development. South Korea has 50 national universities, which
are publicly financed and controlled by the central government. There are
also about 160 private universities and 158 two-year colleges, many of
which are undertaking reforms on their own. Because of the shrinking
number of college-age students, which is driving many of these changes,
approximately 20 percent of the universities and 95 percent of junior
colleges were unable to meet their enrollment quotas last year.

There are 27 percent fewer 18-year-olds now than 20 years ago. And the
future looks even grimmer: South Korean women have one of the lowest
fertility rates in the world. Because nearly 90 percent of South Korean
high-school graduates go on to college, education officials worry that
universities will end up accepting virtually anyone who walks through
their doors. So these officials have ordered national universities to
reduce their enrollments by 15 percent in order to filter out the weakest
students. They have also asked private universities to slash enrollments
by 10 percent. "We need to decrease the number of students admitted to
universities,"  says Kim Young Shik, who until recently was vice minister
of education and human-resource development, during an interview at which
he was surrounded by a dozen directors of education-reform projects. Many
of the top universities are complying with the new enrollment policy even
as university leaders object. "Individual universities should decide how
many fewer students they will accept," says Mr. Park, of Pohang
University, "rather than having a specific number stipulated by the
education ministry."

Many students support the enrollment cuts, arguing that university
resources are now spread too thin. "There are too many schools, and many
of these are not qualified to develop well-educated undergraduates," says
Jang Eun Hyeui, a senior majoring in political science and public
administration at Sookmyung Women's University. University and college
mergers are also moving ahead. During the past two years, 10 national
universities have officially been merged into five institutions, and eight
private universities consolidated into four. But faculty and alumni
opposition or simple administrative glitches are holding up some of these
mergers. Mr. Kim, of the education ministry, expects about a third of the
country's two-year colleges to close or be absorbed into other
institutions in the next three years. Debating Entrance Requirements

One of the most controversial reforms is the government's plan to develop
alternative university entrance requirements in order to lessen the
importance of the national entrance exam. Nearly everyone, including the
education ministry, agrees that South Korea's onerous entrance-examination
system needs changing. But they disagree as to how. Mr. Kim says the
government wants universities to place more emphasis on high-school grades
and interviews and less on exam scores and essays. But many of the elite
universities oppose the plan, saying that it will encourage high schools
to inflate their students' grades. These universities would rather rely
more heavily on essay-based exams, which they feel are harder to

Roh Moo Hyun, president of South Korea, and Chung Un Chan, president of
Seoul National University, debated acrimoniously in South Korean
newspapers last summer over the proposed changes in entrance requirements.
The debate was big news in South Korea a power struggle between the leader
of the left-leaning government and the chief of the nation's most
prestigious university. Mr. Roh contended that an emphasis on essays would
benefit wealthy students who can afford to pay for "cram schools" and
tutors to improve their writing skills. "Public education must be done in
the public schools," President Roh was quoted as saying. Mr. Chung argued
that essays were only one component of the entrance requirements. He said
that his university attempted to enroll students from various regions of
the country. High-school performance records would also be taken into
consideration in selecting new students, he said.

Because university officials fear that high-school teachers and
administrators will start inflating grades if they become a major factor
in the selection process, some have started ranking high schools. But the
education ministry is opposed to this, contending it also leads to
elitism. Last April the education ministry fined a number of prestigious
private universities, including Ehwa Woman's, Korea, and Yonsei
Universities, for ranking the high schools of their prospective students
and assigning more points to those considered stronger. They each lost 20
percent of the government money they were entitled to receive for two
years. The importance of the national entrance exam is hard to overstate.
Every November 600,000 high-school seniors and other prospective
university students troop off to exam centers while normal traffic is

The workday is delayed to give students priority on public transportation,
and planes are grounded during language-listening tests to cut down on
noise. Mothers huddle in freezing temperatures outside the testing centers
waiting to congratulate or console their offspring. Exam stress has led to
wide-scale cheating and suicides. For the past three years, the Korea
Teachers and Education Workers' Union and six other civic organizations
have held an anti-testing festival in Seoul to commemorate the students
who have committed suicide as a result of the exam stress. "It is just
nonsensical that just one test can define our lives," says Choi Young Hwa,
an organizer of the event. Too much importance is given to the test, she
says. She also thinks South Koreans need to stop stressing the importance
of a prestigious university and put more emphasis on the talents and
character of individual students.

Encouraging Autonomy

The government has similar hopes. The thrust of many of its reforms is to
develop a more democratic higher-education system, one that is driven by
the pursuit of excellence rather than by tradition. It is a daunting task.
South Korean society esteems graduates of a handful of elite universities.
As a result, these universities, both public and private, wield immense
power, which government officials believe will cripple progress if allowed
to continue unchecked. Since most of the prestigious universities are
located in Seoul, the education ministry is taking special pains to spur
development in other parts of the country. "If we have universities in
local areas, that leads people to go there," says Mr. Kim, of the
education ministry. One-quarter of the Brain Korea funds, or $750-million,
is being set aside for projects at regional universities. The education
ministry has also set aside $5-million for a program called New University
for Regional Development to help develop universities in remote areas.

The education ministry also hopes to spur innovation and make universities
more fiscally responsible. The ministry is now in charge of the budgets,
organization, and personnel at national universities. This means that
faculty members as well as administrative staff are hired according to
government rules and can only be fired after a lengthy legal process.
Curriculum changes, even relatively minor ones, have to be approved in
advance by the ministry. The education ministry plans to give national
universities greater autonomy by enabling them to hire, fire, reward, or
punish faculty members and to work with corporations.

The government expects to pass legislation within the next few months to
shift oversight of the national universities from the education ministry
to university boards consisting of the president, regional community
members, and alumni.

So far, only three national-university presidents have come out in support
of incorporation, arguing that it would allow them greater autonomy in
shaping their academic programs. The presidents at the other 47 national
universities contend that autonomy would result in a decline in government
economic support and might cause dissent among faculty members over losing
their privileged positions as civil servants. Some private universities
are starting their own reform programs. Youn Dae Euh, president of Korea
University, decided last year to relinquish much of the direct control
most private university presidents wield in order to improve Korea
University's image worldwide. Deans now set their own goals and report
their successes or failures to the faculty and the president.

Mr. Euh believes that universities in Singapore and Hong Kong are ranked
higher than Korea University by publications such as The Times Higher
Education Supplement because those institutions use English as their
language of instruction. So he decided to increase the use of English in
his university's classrooms. He ordered that all newly hired professors,
excluding those who teach Korean language or culture, be capable of
teaching in English and increased the amount of classes taught in English
from 5 percent to 30 percent. He hopes that two-thirds of classes will be
taught in English by 2010.

Changing Graduate Schools

Controversy is also raging over the government's decision to make
substantial changes in the country's graduate schools, which for
generations have focused on training academics rather than practitioners.
Graduate law programs, for example, have focused on cranking out
professors to teach undergraduates. The education ministry's decision to
establish American-style graduate law schools in 2008 is under
particularly heavy fire. Students who wish to become lawyers must now take
a very difficult bar exam that is open to anyone. The few who pass,
usually less than 5 percent, are then trained at a special institute
operated by the Supreme Court.

Lawyers and the bar association oppose the law schools because they see
them as a source of increased competition. "Introducing American-style law
schools just brings confusion and waste to the entire higher-education
system in Korea, and that results in weakening national competitive
power," says Lee Kwan Hee, a professor of law at Korea National Police
University and co-chairman of the Korea Law Professors Association. The
government also wants to reform the medical-education system in order to
discourage students from becoming doctors in favor of careers with a
shortage of professionals, such as engineering. Medical education has
traditionally meant six years of undergraduate work followed by a yearlong
internship and four years of residency.

The education ministry would like universities to defer offering medical
training until graduate school, in the hope that more students would find
other callings during their undergraduate years. The top three medical
schools in the country, Seoul National, Korea, and Yonsei Universities,
have rejected the government's proposal and intend to maintain the current
six-year system. Only 14 of the nation's 41 medical schools plan to follow
the government's proposed change. Debates over changes in higher education
are expected to continue, but with the number of college-age students
dwindling, education experts believe a transformation of the
higher-education system is inevitable. The only question is, What form
will it take?

Bryan Jeong contributed to this article from South Korea.
Section: International
Volume 52, Issue 28, Page A50

Copyright  2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

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