[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]The path of educational reformWith a new reform drive gathering force, academia watchers have turned their attention to Seoul National University (SNU), the nation’s most prestigious university. Reformists have argued that breaking up the university will strike at the heart of the rigid pecking order of universities that has an overwhelming influence on a person’s life chances in Korean society. Opponents have argued that reforming the university so that it can function effectively as an elite institution will strengthen national competitiveness in education and research. Breaking up the university is no guarantee that the remnants will continue to dominate society in another name.
The debate over the university’s future shows the lurch toward egalitarianism that informs many of the policy decisions of the current government. An egalitarian approach to higher education is simple: everybody should have a chance to go to a college that is about as good (or as bad) as other colleges. This system rescues high school students from examination hell because they no longer have to compete to get into a competitive university. The degrees they receive are about equal, which means that life chances rest on matters of ability and personality, rather than on the name of the university.
The problem with this system is that it does not work in Korea or elsewhere. If systems of higher education around the world were ranked in order of their international competitiveness, systems based on competition among diverse types of institutions would rank highest. Those based on uniform egalitarianism would rank lowest.
At present, this means that the American system of higher education ranks far above any other because it is open and elitist at the same time. The top-ranking research universities lead the world in research, as is clear in the number of Nobel Prizes awarded to academics working for U.S. institutions. These institutions are truly international in reach as they attract top talent from around the world. Koreans know this, because the United States is the favorite destination by far for prospective researchers and academics.
The American success in higher education has caused a number of other nations to abandon egalitarianism. Since the 1980s, British universities have undergone a series of controversial reforms designed to strengthen their competitiveness. Britain now has the most dynamic higher education system in Europe, and is attracting ever larger numbers of foreign students from Europe and elsewhere.
Japan has recently taken the cue from Britain and has pushed through several bold reforms of higher education. The biggest and most controversial reform is the semi-privatization of the national universities on April 1, 2004. A related reform is the COE (Center of Excellence) program that awards government research grants to universities rather than to individual researchers. To promote teaching, the COL (Center of Learning) program awards grants to universities that develop creative approaches toward teaching. Together, these programs are designed to create a hierarchy based on accomplishment.
The case of Germany offers the strongest warning against egalitarianism. More than Britain or Japan, Germany has an egalitarian university system based on open admissions for persons who pass the Abitur examination upon leaving high school. German universities have become overcrowded institutions without a competitive drive for excellence. To arrest the decline, the German federal and state governments have recently announced a plan to give research funds to a group of elite universities starting in 2006.
Together, the evidence from the United States, Britain, Japan and Germany is clear: to be good, universities must be competitive and to be competitive, a nation must have good universities. The debate about SNU runs contrary to international trends, which makes you wonder whether the reformers have done their homework.
International trends and domestic politics are often at odds, and enough Koreans are unhappy about SNU’s dominance to keep the debate going. A more productive approach would be to accept the need for competition in higher education and to support SNU and a group of other leading institutions. The Brain Korea 21 program offers a model for merit-based research grants to competitive universities. Indeed, Korea began the program before Japan and Germany adopted a similar strategy.
Another approach would be to develop new universities that can compete with SNU in the group of elite universities. The Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology (KAIST) and Pohang University of Science and Technology (Postech) are examples of new universities that have been able to challenge SNU in select fields. With the college-age population declining, building new universities is not practical. Merging existing institutions to create more competitive ones merits consideration.
In the end, reducing the dominance of SNU by promoting other elite universities creates competitive tension from which academic excellence emerges. This, not egalitarianism, should be the focus of reform efforts.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert Fouser