[Viewpoint]The ‘shock’ of university reformIt was as if “an enormous bomb was dropped on the university.” That is how Makoto Nagao, the president of Japan’s Kyoto University, described what happened when Japan’s national universities were turned into public corporations a few years ago. He was chairman of the National University Association of Japan when the change was announced and the shock, he said, reverberated widely in higher education.
Academics here may have to get ready for a similar shock. Several days ago, the Korean government gave advance notice of its plan to enact a special law that will change national universities into public corporations.
Changing the governance of national universities ― which currently operate like branch offices of the Ministry of Education and Human Resources ― will give them a separate corporate identity and rights.
University budgets that have until now been subsidized with tax money will be allocated to universities in a lump sum linked to school fees paid by students.
The national universities should establish long- and mid-term education goals and plans as independent management units and perform their indigenous mandates of education and research by using their own financial resources including government subsidy and tuition fees. And they should fulfill their social accountability by opening information to the public on the results of their activities.
Since the 1980s, developed countries have been reforming their university systems. The recognition that the education and research capabilities of universities are the wellsprings of national development and competitiveness has grown with the explosive growth of knowledge-based economies.
The reality is that universities, which should perform the indigenous duty of disseminating knowledge in society, have failed to accommodate social change and the demands of the times. Instead, they have indulged in traditional notions of academic freedom and autonomy.
Another factor has been rising school fees for higher education driven by social and economic changes as universities aimed to provide equal opportunity, as well as information- and market-oriented education.
In order to get the maximum impact with limited financial support, distributing resources competitively among universities according to the evaluation of their education and research activities has emerged as an urgent task.
The strong winds of university reform, initiated by governments and politicians, are spreading through Northeast and Southeast Asia, in countries like China, Malaysia, Taiwan and Japan.
These countries are also promoting university reform by turning national universities into public corporations, introducing centralized management and operations systems and allocating budgets on the basis of productivity.
Korea’s national universities are like lonely islands isolated from the world trend.
The result of this isolation is reflected in the poor grades given Korea by authoritative university evaluation institutions. In South Korea there have been discussions on the necessity to reform the university governance system. But they all went up in smoke, due to strong opposition from national universities and difficulties in coordinating the opinions of government ministries.
In the meantime, the legitimacy and financial management of national universities, which should serve as the model for other universities in Korea, has been diminished and distorted.
Although funding for public universities is inserted in the general accounts together with other government institutions, they enjoy a high degree of financial autonomy by independently managing the funds. There is also a blind spot: The accounts for school support are not linked to the government’s general account subsidy. The money has also gone into uses beyond facilities and installations, such as payment of allowances for teaching staff and their welfare.
Changing the governance of national universities into public corporations cannot cure all the problems in one stroke, but it can at least be the starting point of university reform. After all, changing Japanese national universities, which came as a shock to faculties, was a boon for all Japanese people.
*The writer is a professor of Japan studies at Kwangwoon University.
by Lee Hyang-chul