[VIEWPOINT]Our backward universities

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[VIEWPOINT]Our backward universities

The cheating scandal on the College Scholastic Ability Test drove us all into shock. Those who passed the test by cheating will probably continue to cheat through their university years. The negative effects that this may have on other students and schools frighten me.
Our universities these days have not only cheating problems, but many other issues to be dealt with too, and the means for solving such problems are insufficient. Korea’s economic capability is 12th in the whole world, but our universities seem to be in the state of extreme backwardness. Why is this happening?
Let us compare our universities with those in the United States, where academically strong universities are springing up like mushrooms after the rain. What are the differences between them?
First of all, we have around one month fewer school days per year compared to the United States. It is said that shorter school days were started by the government under former President Chun Doo Hwan which brought forward the summer vacations a month earlier, more in line with the U.S. practice, in order to prevent student demonstrations in July. Then the winter vacation should have been reduced to one month or less as in the United States, but the government left it somewhere between two and three months.
Learning days have decreased a lot, but it seems that students are happy because they do not have to attend classes; the professors are happy because they don’t have to work; and the university administration is happy because costs are reduced. Nobody has made the number of school days a subject of discussion.
Liberal arts subjects in the United States usually have five textbooks per subject: one main textbook and four or five supporting textbooks. You need to read through at least one book a month to get a grade of C or above. Korean students acquire the knowledge of less than 100 books by the time they graduate, but their grades are so exaggerated from an international point of view that around two-thirds graduate with a B average.
State universities in the United States have one professor to seven or eight students, and Ivy League universities have one professor to around five or six students. In Korea, there are few universities that even comply with the ratio of one to 20-25 that is recommended by the Ministry of Education. That is why our universities can only educate students wholesale.
The main force of the teaching staff of our universities is part-time lecturers, and professors go through lessons en masse because they have so many classes to teach.
In U.S. universities, the number of part-time instructors is only one-tenth of the number of professors. By contrast, in Korea, part-time instructors teach more than half the classes. But the payment for instructors is so unbelievably low that instructors get one-tenth of what professors get for their “hard labor.” The payment for university instructors in the United States is enough to live on if you teach one subject, and enough for a family of two to live on if you teach two subjects. So they employ full-time professors instead, considering the effectiveness and the benefit to the schools. In the United States, the issue of an increasing number of contract professors has been raised recently, and public opinion holds that they should be given the fringe benefits of full-time professors. The problem of labor was a hot study theme for a while in the Korean academic world, but nobody cared about the “labor” problems of part-time instructors. As a result, Korean universities became loose castles built without foundations and expanded without plans, relying on the sweat and blood of instructors.
The presidents of universities have been elected through balloting for the past twenty years, thanks to a wind of democracy that swept through our schools. The most important election pledges were the outward prosperity of the school and the welfare of professors. That is mainly because professors were the ones who voted in those elections. Universities became corpulent and the welfare of professors was lifted to the same level as that in the United States in such things as sabbatical years, payment for research work and reduction of obligatory lecturing hours that slowly became the norm.
As the school budget is a zero-sum game, the employment of new professors is decreased to compensate. The employment of a professor, therefore, becomes such a wild contest among the powers of the government, money and school connections that it sometimes is hard to see who is really most qualified.
As for the libraries and laboratories, there is a need for more books and research material. But the students, who are the consumers of the school, are more concerned with the registration fees rather than the quality of education and exert all their efforts in fighting to lower it. This is mostly due to the influence of the legends of the democratization struggle introduced by former President Kim Dae-jung’s administration.
All these problems, organically intertwined, are making our universities crash to the bottom. The solution for our abnormally structured universities is a drastic increase in the number of full-time professors and a boost in the basic strength of our universities.
Businesses continue to improve themselves because their goal is profits and they have to survive in the international market. But our backbone universities do not have to make an effort to survive because they have a guaranteed domestic market. This is the fundamental factor for the laziness and fall of universities. Managing a university is a very difficult business that requires high moral standards.

* The writer is a professor of American history at Hankook University of Foreign Studies. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Hyung-in

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