[VIEWPOINT]Science school needs funding

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[VIEWPOINT]Science school needs funding

The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, also known as the KAIST, is a hot topic in the science community right now after the president of the institute, Robert B. Laughlin, presented a vision that “the KAIST should be privatized to secure autonomous budget rights and run the school independently from the government.” The conclusion to “privatize the KAIST” was drawn by the president after he met with professors and observed the school for five months after he took the post in July. As a result not only professors and students at the KAIST but also the whole science community is in anguish over the vision for “an engineering university of the 21st century.”
When the KAIST was first established, the most important goal back at that time was our country’s entrance into a group of industrialized countries, and so many efforts were made to mass produce students who would play a leading role in developing Korea’s science and technology. However, the 21st century needs more than ever leaders who can create new values in information and technology and lead the way for corporations and society. That is the reason why we have to produce intellectuals with more creativity and wider vision. It is Mr. Laughlin’s idea that in order to break away from the yokes of bureaucracy and egalitarianism and to manage the school with flexibility using the wonders of “choice and focus,” it is necessary to become financially independent from the government. A lot of people agree with this idea too.
The problem is, “Where are we going to get funds for the school?” President Laughlin is of the opinion that the KAIST should increase its number of students to 20,000, accept around six million won per year from students for tuition, and establish pre-medical and pre-law school classes as well as a pre-MBA course to serve the students and parents, the main clients of the school. It would be similar to how the Massachusetts Institute of Technology became the most popular engineering university in the United States by drastically increasing its undergraduate academic programs for liberal arts and social science fields and expanding its pre-medical programs since the 1980s.
However, the problem is that even in the case of American private universities, like MIT or Harvard, the portion of the tuition fees paid by students in the total school finance is not that high. The same goes for the KAIST. The KAIST spends around 25 million won a year to educate one student. So, the more the number of students, the more money will be needed to finance the school’s operation. In Korea’s reality where it is difficult to expect donations for school development or financial assistance for research activities from private foundations, it is extremely dangerous to pursue “privatization relying on school fees.” On top of that, it is actually impossible to maintain the ratio of “professor to student” and the academic standard of new students whilst increasing the overall number of students to 20,000. That is why everybody is in such anguish over the matter.
The other big problem is whether it is appropriate or not for the KAIST, which must lead the move to save the science and engineering fields, to install pre-medical and pre-law school courses just for financial independence. Everybody agrees that the pre-medical and pre-law classes are good for attracting new students, but it might be hard for the majority of the KAIST students and professors to accept Mr. Laughlin’s idea because they are the ones who worked hard to save the KAIST when the science and technology field was having a hard time. It would be as if Guus Hiddink, who was brought in to revive Korean soccer, said “Korean soccer is not popular with the public, so I think we should change to baseball.”
If there were one solution, it would be that the government should raise funds so that the KAIST becomes financially independent in maybe 10 to 20 years time and managed by an independent foundation, just as POSCO donated 700 billion won ($663 million) to establish a foundation that supports the Pohang University of Science and Technology.
This is a good opportunity to discuss what form “constructive government support” should be. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, where Albert Einstein once studied, gets sufficient support of over 2 trillion won from Swiss government, so it never loses its place as the best engineering university in the world. It is my hope that the KAIST problem will not stop at being an issue of a school, but will provide a useful opportunity to reconsider the model for “the engineering university of the 21st century” and the frame for “constructive government support.” The most important thing that should not be forgotten in this discussion is the fact that the clients the KAIST has to serve are the students, parents, corporations and the nation.

* The writer is a professor of brain dynamics at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Jeong Jae-seung
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