[OUTLOOK]A Better Reform Idea for Seoul NationalComplaints and criticism rained down on the Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development when it was reported that the basic academic abilities of freshmen at Seoul National University have deteriorated so much that professors have had to dumb down their lectures. I don't think those criticisms are on-target, although I agree that there have been many problems in the government's education reform.
If freshmen have problems adapting to the education at Seoul National University, the responsibility belongs to the professors who fail to accommodate the academic abilities of freshmen, not to the Education Ministry. Seoul National too often imputes failures of education policy to the ministry. But has there ever been a commission on education policy without its professors on it? The problem is not the inferior academic abilities of the freshmen.
Why are our universities not competitive? President Kim Dae-jung's diagnosis was that incompetent professors give generous grades to students in order to camouflage their own defects. Students take advantage of the weaknesses of professors instead of studying. I absolutely agree with Professor Choi Kab-soo of Seoul National University, who said that President Kim knows nothing about current academic conditions in Korea. In the May 16 number of Issue Today he explained that most universities grade on a relative, or
"curve," scale, and pointed out that professors with 10-year-old lecture notes cannot survive in the Internet era.
I cannot easily agree with professor Choi, however, that Seoul National University is much more productive than other universities, given the stingy level of government support. This was his retort to President Kim's criticism of Seoul National for ranking 73d among the world universities. Every professor in Korea, he says, has on average 39.7 students, so of course Korean universities cannot be competitive when the corresponding number in OECD countries is 14.6. Well, yes. But the number is 20 for Seoul National, so it is in no position to complain. Moreover, it gets an unimaginable amount of donations every year in addition to government support.
The problem is, the money is not spent on improving fundamental studies or on public goods. It allegedly is wasted on individual colleges' vanity projects. Where in the world are there universities like Seoul National with so many luxurious buildings and dining rooms for professors, while it is not up to the level of ordinary American state universities in terms of the library collection?
Why do college students not study? Because our society treats them not according to their ability but according to the prestige of the school they attend. If a university entrance examination decides a person's destiny, if alma mater is all that matters, what reason is there to study except for the national qualification examinations for prestigious jobs like lawyers and senior government officials? More than 50 percent of students at Seoul National are reportedly studying for such examinations. And it is said more than 50 percent of the parents of Seoul National students work at managerial or professional jobs. We seem to be tightening our belts to pay taxes that are used to support the children of the rich to study for national examinations.
As the government intentionally supported business conglomerates in the era of economic development, Seoul National University contributed to national development by providing the necessary human and material resources. But the scale of our economy now requires more high-quality human resources than Seoul National can produce. It is impossible to have a fair competition among universities as long as Seoul National gets all the brightest students and takes every lucrative business into its octopus-like tentacles. It is not easy to ask for an increase in education expenditure when it is already more than 20 percent of the national budget. National universities should support the academic fields that private universities cannot. That is one way to avoid overlapping investment in education. As special favors have gone to Seoul National University, how can it be competitive with the world's other prestigious universities?
The 20 professors, including Zhang Hwe-ik of the physics department, recently suggested a new way for Seoul National University that renewed my hope for education in Korea. They proposed that the university not educate undergraduate students of its own for a while in order to concentrate on nurturing graduate schools while teaching excellent students assigned by other national universities. It is an innovative and realistic alternative to foster the balanced development of the nation, as well as cooperation and competition among universities. I expect the Seoul National University community to discuss the matter more seriously.
We should not forget that Seoul National University is owned by us, the people. We should actively pursue a national consensus for this proposal and devise specific measures to implement it.
The writer is a professor at graduate School of International Studies of Ewha Womans University.
by Cho Ki-suk