[Viewpoint] Whither our national universities?

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[Viewpoint] Whither our national universities?

The Korean Dredging Corporation was a public enterprise operating ships that dredged sand from river bottoms. On average, eight crew members worked on a ship. When the company became privatized, the number of crew on board the ship was reduced to three, and their efficiency actually improved.

There are 86 national universities in Japan. The professors at the national universities were once civil servants, and they worked from nine to five as dictated by the schedule set down in the code for civil servants. While there was no need for such an arrangement, they were technically classified as government employees.

Of course, universities should focus on improving the quality of their education and research, and competition among the schools is only natural. But in Japan, the national universities were most concerned with employment status and civil service regulations and competition was stifled. Reform was necessary and inevitable. In 2001, Japan began to establish corporations for national universities, and the scheme was completed in April 2004.

It was felt that universities couldn’t be entirely privatized just because they lacked competitiveness, so a third group of university corporations was created midway between private companies and government agencies. As a result, the corporatization of the universities didn’t mean commercialization since the schools are non-profit organizations. Critics were concerned that corporatization would lead to a decline in basic academic research and teaching. But as long as the students and professors recognized the importance of basic research and studies, corporatization doesn’t affect them.

Corporatization of universities is the only way to dissolve rigid management. Exclusive and defensive management of universities can be relieved by having outside figures sit on their boards of directors, the management council and the election committee for the university president. Also, a rating agency consisting of experts and civilians should evaluate the level of education offered by schools and the research performance of their professors, and the result should be reflected in the distribution of resources.

There are 45 national universities in Korea, including 11 teachers’ colleges and three junior colleges. They are attended by 700,000 students, about 28 percent of all college students, and employ about 20,000 faculty. While national universities certainly make efforts to improve the quality of their education and research, their accomplishments have been limited because they generally suffer from chronically bad management.

For example, one national university offers 1,680 places for students, but only 800 are filled. The school has 118 professors, 55 administrative staff members and 23 teaching assistants. The professors at this university produce little research. The school offers no special major that can lead the students to a useful career in society. In Korea today, such a university is left untouched and can continue operating.

Malaysia and Thailand started university reform before Japan. Malaysia corporatized its national universities in 1998. In Thailand, a law was passed in 1999 to convert all national and public universities into “autonomous universities.” The change wasn’t swift because many professors resisted the reforms, which threatened their job security. But there was no real justification for their resistance. The reforms were necessary to improve the quality of education in the nation’s institutes of higher learning.

According to a competitiveness report published by the International Institute of Management Development of Switzerland in 2008, the quality of university education in Korea was 53rd out of 55 countries included in the survey. That’s a wake-up call we can hardly ignore, or set on snooze. Do we understand the seriousness of the situation correctly? The international community is now paying attention to the development of various sectors such as arts, sports and entertainment in countries around the world. It’s not just looking at economic growth rates. Will Korean universities be fixed in the spotlight some day?

There are dozens of universities that cannot fill 70 percent of their capacity. The decreasing number of perspective students has become a threat to many schools. As private schools make strenuous efforts to overcome that challenge by providing better educations for students, national universities still lack the means or drive to respond to the changing conditions.

National universities can no longer ignore the need to streamline their systems to enhance competitiveness and cope with the crisis. Corporatization of national universities is an inevitable need to save the schools.

*The writer is a journalist and a former president of Yong-In Songdam College.

By Kim Dong-ik
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