[Viewpoint]Memo to government: Set academia free

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[Viewpoint]Memo to government: Set academia free

Education and academic research are the raisons d’etre of the university. Freedom and intellect are its foundations. Since the Middle Ages, universities have always been in conflict with the state and the church, which emphasized pragmatic secularism and divine transcendentalism, respectively. The pursuit of knowledge based on reason and freedom had been broken under the matrix of a bureaucratic secularism of rules, regulations, administrative guidelines and budgets.
When people grasp the facts about the massive government bureaucracy called the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development, they cannot but feel suffocated. The ministry was upgraded in status as one of three ministries headed by a deputy prime minister, although their ability to coordinate human resources-related issues is in doubt. The ministry has a total of 42 educational institutions under its control, including national universities, industrial colleges and junior colleges.
Despite the basic spirit of the Constitution, guaranteed under Clause 4, Article 31, the ministry interferes with and regulates college administration and education programs under the pretext that it is required by law on higher education, as well as the implementation of regulations and rules covering college establishments and administrations.
There are endless regulations covering the structures of school management, personnel management, the number of students, tuition fees, creation of new departments, school regulations and so on.
The ministry even interferes in matters related to essay writing for university entrance exams. Official notices from the ministry ask universities to “Prevent cheating” and “Display FTA promotional materials at the library entrances.” It seems as if colleges have been reduced to kindergartens. It did not take long for the universities to learn the bad habits of bureaucracy. For example, there were cases in which professors, who should be selected under strict rules as is the case in selecting students, were selected in typical bureaucratic fashion.
The budget has become an essential tool for the ministry to control universities.
The government tries to turn universities into “oases of the desert.” An oasis may be fine for quenching thirst, but is it possible to produce gifted and talented people, if the body and mind of academia have become bureaucratized? How can they criticize government policy ― how will the government treat professors who mobilize all possible means of lobbying, even exceeding those of politicians, to win research funds?
Government organizations follow this logic: They enlarge the structure and increase the number of personnel through whatever means they can manipulate, and control the red, blue and black strings of interference by pulling them strongly or gently according to what the situation demands.
The government does not recognize the essence of education and knowledge nurtured in universities, regarding them as nothing more than in any other organization.
If this is what it thinks of universities that prepare for the future and spearhead the nation, what can be expected for the future of the government?
I hope the Ministry of Education will change its mind while it is not too late. No matter how many meetings are held by the university self-rule committee, they will be of no use as long as they go along with the agenda prepared by the government.
Instead, in order to let creative imaginations work at universities as they should, the government can do the following:
First, it should take the example of the U.S. Department of Education, which does not interfere with college administration, and let education committees made up of state governors, state legislators and state college faculty members play a central role.
Second, as in the example of the British Department of Education and Employment, the ministry can intervene in the distribution of government subsidies, and leave most school administration in the hands of the universities.
Third, it can draw up a long-term plan for education, distribute budget funds and counsel policies, as exemplified by the French Higher Education Council.
Fourth, its function can be limited to financing and accounting as has been suggested by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Fifth, policy issues related to higher education can be transferred to the prime minister’s office, as is the case in Thailand. Otherwise it can merge with the Science and Technology Ministry to form a Ministry of Education and Science, like the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.
Universities will only be able to get away from the shadow of bureaucracy, bask in the sun and regain enough health to leap freely onto the international stage, if the government sheds some weight first and lets go of its strings of interference.
It is my hope that the Education Ministry learns a lesson from Leonardo da Vinci’s seven principles for creativity: Be willing to embrace ambiguity.

*The writer is a professor emeritus of Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Kwang-woong
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