[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Universities must listen to studentsWalls are the great dividers in architecture. They divide inside from outside, members from nonmembers. They protect and imprison at the same time. In Korea, the most prominent walls are those that surround large university campuses. The walls are tall and exclusive, scarring the street life of the city. For student protesters in the past, the walls offered protection from riot police, but made it difficult for students to project their cause onto the city.
The ubiquitous walls around universities may soon be a thing of the past. Earlier this year, Korea University president Euh Yoon-dae announced the university would tear down the wall surrounding it. Soon after that, Yonsei University and Ewha Woman’s University announced similar plans. With three famous universities tearing down the walls, the trend will spread quickly to universities across the country.
Though symbolic, the importance of the destruction of walls around universities marks a major turning point in higher education in Korea. With ever-larger numbers of elite students going overseas, Korean universities must reinvent themselves to survive. The boom in overseas study began in the 1980s as many students went overseas for graduate education. The interest in studying overseas moved down to the undergraduate and high school levels after the recovery from the 1997 economic crisis. Together, these trends have carved a powerful image of the superiority of overseas education in the public mind.
At home, demographics are forcing universities to compete for students from a declining population of young people. Already, many regional private universities are having trouble filling their classrooms, a trend that may soon force many universities into bankruptcy. Elite universities are in no danger of running short of applicants, but they face an equally difficult challenge of trying to maintain student quality.
Universities in English-speaking countries have turned increasingly to foreign students and mature students to maintain student numbers and student quality. This is more difficult in Korea. Unlike universities in English-speaking countries that can use English to attract foreign students, Korean universities can only attract so many foreign students. Korean universities have had some success at reaching out to mature students, mostly at the graduate level, but many would prefer to study overseas if given a choice.
The twin pressures of foreign competition and domestic demographics are formidable. To meet these challenges, Korean universities must show that they are listening to what students want and are willing to change with the times. Tearing down the walls sends a message to students and society that the university is an open and accessible place that listens to what students want. If students want more interesting classes and better teaching, then they should be able to make this clear to universities before deciding to go overseas at great personal expense.
At the same time, it redefines the university as an institution that is part of society rather than separate from it. To date, universities in Korea and many other Asian countries have viewed themselves as separate from society, though they are often quick to claim to be the conscience of society.
A closer connection with society will help universities reach out to mature students and develop closer relations with the local community. This is particularly important for regional universities because many have failed to develop close relations with the surrounding community. In turn, many communities feel little loyalty for a local university.
On another psychological plane, tearing down the walls around universities reaffirms the triumph of democracy and freedom in Korea. Students no longer need the protection of the university as a place of protest or as a base for political activity. They and others can now demonstrate physically in the heart of cities and virtually on the Internet. The wall no longer divides the free student space from the non-free real world.
As has happened throughout the history of architecture, ideas, demographics, and politics have come together to make an existing form of building irrelevant, freeing creativity to build something new in the process.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser