Critics take aim at Korea’s top university

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Critics take aim at Korea’s top university

The “SKY” is truly the limit for Korean students fortunate to attend the top three local universities ― Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University ― that make up the acronym. And for those who attend prestigious Seoul National University those limits are seemingly nonexistent.
Established officially in 1945 as Seoul National University, which was Gyeongseong Imperial College during the Japanese colonial period, the school, which has 32,000 students, enjoys a reputation as Korea’s best.
Entrance into SNU is considered the ultimate prize in a student’s academic career. Only 4,674 students were admitted last year. After graduation, in a country where work ties are often based on college alumni networks, SNU alumni often get instant access to a network among the highest academic and political circles, called hakbeol in Korean. “SKY” is the core of Korea’s hakbeol.
At bookstores in downtown Seoul, the desire to get into SNU is evident. You’ll find more than 20 books on admission to SNU, such as “28 Things a Future Seoul National Students at Public School Should Know” or “Conquer Your Tactics and Habits of Studying to Dream About Entering Seoul National University.”
The desperation has also infiltrated pop culture, such as the recent movie “Maengbu Samcheon Jigyo,” a comedy about a father obsessed with sending his child to SNU.
With such a formidable reputation and prestige, few have dared to challenge the school’s authority, but recently critics have been making their voices heard.
Earlier this year, the Democratic Labor Party and Korea Teachers’ Union blasted SNU graduates who were in positions of power for favoring only other SNU alumni, and the Democratic Party campaigned on the promise of making all national universities equal in stature, including SNU. The campaign pledge drew more attention after the left-wing party earned 10 seats in the National Assembly, much more than expected.
The controversy about SNU’s lofty status is not something new. In 2002, as a presidential candidate, Roh Moo-hyun once supported the idea of reducing SNU’s stature. What’s different about the more recent critics, however, is the intensity and determination of certain groups to carry out specific plans.
Han Jun-sang, a professor of education at Yonsei University, said, “Criticism against Seoul National, until recently, stopped at rhetorical sarcasm, which only showed how powerful the school was. But this time, it’s different. It’s more threatening and outspoken. The criticism has developed into a voice that’s asking Seoul National to be eradicated completely.”
The school’s supporters argue that SNU is merely enjoying the fruits of being the winner of a fair competition in a free society, but Lee Kong-hoon, a director of a group called Making a Society Free From Hakbeol, says the playing field is not level.
“SNU gets financial support from the national treasury, up to 65 percent of its budget, every year, and the administrative staff are like government officials,” says Mr. Lee, whose business card reads, “This academic clique-oriented society is killing our children.” He dismissed a question about which school he attended.
SNU’s reputation and prestige strengthen the entrenched academic sectarianism, says Mr. Lee. “The biggest problem is that the educational power of SNU has become a political power that rules over this whole country.”
Just how much power? Kim Sang-bong, with the group Society Without Academic Cliques, is publishing a book, “The Society of Academic Clique” in August, in which he lays out some of the privileges that come with a SNU degree.
After analyzing the government’s documents of personnel affairs, Mr. Kim found that one out of every two government top-level officials were SNU graduates, easily outnumbering Korea and Yonsei alumni.
“This once again confirmed the absolute power of SNU,” Mr. Kim said. “The competition in middle and high schools in Korea and the problem with private education is all because of an effort to enter that academic clique, whose core is SNU,” Mr. Kim said.
On top of all these perks, the huge government subsidies allow SNU to charge far cheaper tuition than what Korea and Yonsei universities charge, both of which are private.
The Democratic Labor Party is moving to remove these advantages given to SNU alumni. Jeong Jin-sang, a sociology professor at Gyeongsang National University, in South Gyeongsang province, and a Seoul National graduate, is advising the party to push for a unified network of national universities in Korea.
By getting rid of the exclusivity, the party says the universities can share benefits among themselves, using the French equalized college systems as examples.
Not surprisingly, SNU opposes any suggestion that would reduce its standing in society. Earlier this month, SNU President Chung Un-chan, who had remained silent on the matter, spoke up.
During an interview with the conservative Monthly Chosun, Mr. Chung said SNU’s critics were trying to shut down the school with their efforts.
“Closing down Seoul National would only bring darkness over the future of the country. ... [If the government pushes forward with the plan,] I’ll fight to the end,” he said.
Trying to bring down SNU, however, is not going to be easy. Ryu Hye-sook, an official with the Ministry of Education and Human Resources, said the government is not considering any policies that would change the university’s system.
“The argument still gives us a chance to examine the policies of higher education,” she said. “But there can be other alternatives, like bringing up other universities to SNU’s level.”
Advocacy groups dealing with education issues, however, say something must be done about SNU.
“SNU is not just a school, it’s an official state organ,” Mr. Lee said.
Mr. Kim and Mr. Lee suggest that to normalize the Korean education system, the highest priority must be given to equalizing universities by taking prestige away from SNU.
The two activists differ in that Mr. Kim wants every university in Korea to become public, but Mr. Lee advocates privatizing all universities by incorporating national universities.
For example, Tokyo University, which many believe SNU was modeled after, was incorporated earlier this year after a longtime debate.
“Tokyo University, however, was not incorporated in the strictest sense, in that the Japanese government still gives the school financial support,” Mr. Lee said.
Only after halting all governmental support to universities, Mr. Lee argued, then universities could fairly compete with one another, which Mr. Lee said would fix the educational system.
SNU officials, in the meantime, have been pointing out the school’s efforts to renew itself as a defense against those who want to dismantle its system.
In addition to plans to establish a separate law school and a new medical graduate school system, SNU officials announced earlier this month that the school will cut the number of admissions next year by 16 percent in what they call an effort to improve quality. They say reducing the student-to-professor ratio will make for a better education.
This, however, is far from satisfying the critics. “The one and only measure is to abolish Seoul National University,” Mr. Lee said.

by Chun Su-jin
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