College reforms must continue

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College reforms must continue

After a professor and four students at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology took their own lives, people are busy presenting various ways to solve the problem and prevent a recurrence of such a tragedy. Yesterday, lawmakers summoned Kaist President Suh Nam-pyo to the National Assembly to hold him accountable for the suicides and ask what went wrong. More worrisome, however, is the prevailing attitude of people who have tried to blame him for the affair by turning a blind eye to his drive to make the school into an internationally-renowned science school.

For higher-learning institutions like Kaist, excellence is the utmost value for successful research and education. The problem is not competition but how to create an environment that ensures fair competition among students as well as teachers. That’s why we have so far pointed out that the potential loss incurred from the school’s punitive tuition fee system is just as important as the expected gain from it. Suh said at the Assembly that he will change the draconian tuition system into a punitive scholarship system.

The same principle could also be applied to the school’s obligatory use of English in all classes, except for Korean language and history. If English is the source of the many problems, the solution should be found in how to elevate students’ English skills, not in blaming English. Unless Kaist graduates can speak English well and write their dissertations in proficient English, they don’t deserve government subsidies nor their proud status in the world.

Kaist has so far demonstrated exemplary leadership on the college reform front. The school’s tightened regulations on professors’ tenure and its decision to remove professors with poor academic performance from the faculty triggered a copycat reform movement among a number of universities around the country. According to The London Times’ latest assessment of world universities, the school ranked 21st place in engineering and information technology and 39th in natural sciences. Boosted by Suh’s reform drive, the number of donations to Kaist by its alumni also soared from 566 in 2006 to 3,324 in 2009.

Universities should continue to reform themselves. Other schools should also follow in Kaist’s footprints to raise their competitiveness in the world. That’s the best way to repay taxpayers. Again, the focus must be placed on how to improve the environment to ensure fair competition, not on the competitive system itself.
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