[VIEWPOINT]Private schools aren’t the enemyOne cannot talk about higher education in Korea without mentioning private institutions. Currently, 82 percent of four-year universities and 90 percent of junior colleges are private. If it were not for the dedication and contribution of private universities since Korea won its independence 60 years ago, our country would not have been able to produce quality human resources at all.
It is also undeniable that it is mainly because of the contribution of private schools that South Korea is included among the top five countries in the world that boast a high proportion of students who complete a higher education.
The draft revision bill of the Private School Law, presented by the governing party last year, and the university reform plan announced by the government on Aug. 31 seem to treat private educational institutions as wrongdoers who need rehabilitation, and these bills seem intent on restructuring them.
As the president of a private university who constantly worries about its survival and development, my heart aches over the matter. In order for changes and innovations to take place, we need to reflect on the past and the present deeply, and we have to maintain a sense of balance.
As long as our society continues to stick to the way of thinking that divides schools into public vs. private and assumes groundlessly that private schools are unfair, corrupt and unreliable, there is no way for any education reform policy to be successful. It is not right to cause healthy universities that are fighting for survival to fall into despair by digging up cases of university mismanagement as if to draw battle lines.
Even without mentioning statistics from various reports, we all acknowledge that Korea’s higher education is not competitive. We also know that the education offered by universities does not fully reflect the demands of society, including those of industrial institutions.
People also know that the crisis for universities will worsen as they increasingly find difficulty in enrolling new students, and that universities have no choice but to overhaul their education content, methods and management system. However, we should pause to reconsider whether the plan presented by the government is the result of a balanced evaluation of the national education system as a whole.
More than anything else, the government must reconsider the priorities and efficiency of restructuring university education. The government should first successfully carry out structural reform of featureless national and public universities that have a long history of lax management. Afterwards, there would not be any private university that would just stand by and watch as the national and public universities effectively altered their educational structure.
We have to mull over why Japan, which has an even higher percentage of private schools than South Korea, made all of its national universities into public corporations under the motto of “restructuring national universities with international competitiveness and enhancing their sense of responsibility.”
Universities in the United States today are highly competitive, but it is not because the central government imposed excessive controls and restrictions on them. Their quality is the result of the government’s strong faith in the self-control capacities of the higher education market, and its support for the efforts of universities for autonomous and creative innovation.
In the case of Britain, the government has been focusing only on the financial support of university reform through its “higher education innovation fund” since 1997. This evidently shows us what role the government needs to play in restructuring universities. Korean universities are already in a situation where they cannot avoid being affected by the principles of free market economics. Numerous private universities are in a position where they really have to transform themselves so the government does not have to adopt a uniform standard ordering them to do this and that anymore.
If the aim of university restructuring is not a quantitative reduction of higher education institutions but the strengthening of their international competitiveness through specialized and autonomous management, there cannot be any discrimination betwe-en national and private schools.
Now that the Ministry of Educa-tion has presented a plan to reorganize national universities, it has to come up with a way to provide administrative and financial support for private universities’ efforts to merge and reduce their size. The government must frankly acknowledge the historical contributions of private universities and fully consider the suffering they are going through today. In the course of the recent move to restructure universities, private universities should not be made victims after having made such a big contribution to the nation.
* The writer, a former minister of unification, is the president of Kyungnam University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Park Jae-kyu
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