[Outlook]University bluesMuch attention has been given to the fact that the College of Engineering at Seoul National University was recently unable to hire any new faculty although it announced the seven open positions.
The public’s response has ranged from those simply curious about why it is difficult to fill a Seoul National University professorship, which is known to be prestigious, to those concerned about the future of engineering education at universities in Korea.
The faculty search at SNU received media attention because it was striking that the college was unable to hire anyone. In reality, however, SNU has frequently been unable to recruit new faculty members for the past several years.
The College of Natural Science, for example, offered three professorships last semester, yet could fill only one.
This is not an isolated incident.
Why has it been difficult recently to fill faculty positions at SNU?
First, we must consider the point that the standards for becoming a professor have gone up.
As Korea’s universities try to make global names for themselves, they want to hire professors whose academic competence is on a global level. This raises the standard for appointment.
Especially in the engineering field, where comparison to overseas universities is easier than in other disciplines, schools need scholars who have the career and research abilities that world universities demand.
The trouble is that for high-class brains whose competence has reached a global level, Korean universities are not an attractive place to work.
Even SNU, the most respected university of Korea, has inferior research capacities when compared to universities in other advanced countries.
In addition, the educational environment for the children of would-be professors and other socio-economic conditions are not exciting enough to lure global talents to the Land of the Morning Calm.
Moreover, the brilliant students that our universities used to be proud of do not make such a difference anymore. These days they either avoid studying natural science and engineering or go abroad early in their lives for education.
Besides patriotism and blood relations, they have very few reasons to come back.
Now that highly qualified intellectuals turn down even the most prestigious university in Korea, Korean universities face a grave danger.
Universities have long lost talented students to overseas academic institutions because of study immigration for secondary education.
The trouble finding qualified faculty members is now an additional hardship.
Human resources are a university’s first and foremost asset. Without outstanding students and professors, one can expect to neither provide a good education nor distinguished research achievements.
In the 21st century knowledge-based society where universities take the lead in national competitiveness, it is a great loss for the country, as well as for the universities themselves, that our academic institutions are becoming less competitive when trying to attract first-rate brains.
A country that cannot educate its own pool of qualified citizens will not be able to develop into an advanced country either.
Blame for the brain drain can be assigned to many areas, such as the government’s education policies, which are driven toward equalization, and general educational circles, which have remained ignorant of international trends in education.
Aside from those reasons, however, the direct responsibility lies with universities, and they should be the ones to proactively search for a solution.
Above all, universities must provide a supportive environment for research and study to first-rate researchers.
Enforcing downward egalitarianism in education should be vigorously resisted in the institutions and cultures of universities. Instead they must install a merit system that rewards individual achievements and capabilities.
A proactive approach that seeks out able scholars is also required of universities.
In the case of U.S. universities, one of the important tasks of the dean of a college is to search for aspiring young scholars at academic conferences.
The school should find ways to recruit qualified academic professionals, for instance, introducing special hiring systems for exceptional individuals.
Student education should also receive more attention than it does now.
So-called first rate universities in Korea have been in fact negligent in their selection and education of students because they have been able to easily recruit qualified students thus far.
However, it is no longer possible to compete with foreign universities simply by having a domestic brand name.
Universities must compete based on the quality of education they provide.
Now that academic institutions are more than ever competing worldwide to recruit outstanding students, Korean universities should elevate the quality of the education they offer and attract distinguished minds to domestic institutions.
Unless such reforms succeed, our universities, and the country as a whole, will never be able to leap to the next stage of development.
*The writer is the dean of the College of Natural Science at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff
By Oh Se-jung