[Viewpoint] Raising the bar for higher education

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[Viewpoint] Raising the bar for higher education

The government has been pursuing various policies to allow greater freedom in terms of how universities, which were constrained by education authorities until 2000, operate.

There are numerous examples of universities around the world gaining a competitive edge courtesy of their respective governments’ moves to make them more independent.

Some of the leading examples of this are the Ivy League schools in the northeastern U.S., as well as public colleges such as the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and the University of Wisconsin, not to mention British institutions like Oxford and Cambridge.

Seoul announced a new set of plans to enhance the autonomy of Korean institutes of higher education recently. Past steps were limited, mostly allowing them more control in terms of which students they admit. The new plan includes much deregulation.

This comes as a sharp reversal from last year, when the government acted with a heavy hand by demanding that tuition fees be cut and restructuring be carried out, as well as subjecting them to an unprecedented level of auditing by the Board of Audit and Inspection.

The turnaround suggests the government has reached the conclusion that universities cannot restructure and reform themselves unless they are given greater sovereignty.

Easing rules pertaining to the construction of school buildings like dormitories, the utilization of school property to generate revenue for purposes other than education and the freedom to admit more foreign students are among the list of demands that universities have long been campaigning for.

Strong leadership is essential in terms of upgrading the competitiveness of universities. Behind most prestigious universities stand competent chief administrators, and leaders of prominent U.S. universities influence educational practices around the world.

Often cited are Charles Eliot of Harvard and Robert Hutchins at the University of Chicago. Eliot, who was with Harvard for 40 years until 1909, transformed what was a provincial college into America’s most elite school. In contrast, the tenure for a Korean university president has been limited to four years. Some schools have already adopted the recommendation to lift this limit, which will help bolster the quality of higher education in the country by allowing for consistent policies to be applied.

Flexibility in budgeting and sales of idle assets can also greatly ease the financial straits of universities that entirely depend on tuition fees for revenue. Previously, they could not use these properties to generate revenue, but the easing of this rule will no doubt soon prove another boon.

Fundamentally, the government needs to increase its subsidies for, and financial support of, universities. Such support currently accounts for just 0.6 percent of GDP, below the 1 percent average of OECD members.

If the government really wants to bring down tuition fees while strengthening education standards, it needs to spend at least an extra 10 trillion won ($8.82 billion).

However, the recently introduced liberalization measures have not resolved all of universities’ problems. Many will not be able to fill up classrooms when population changes cause the number of students to ebb in the next five years.

Moreover, due to the still unacceptably low level of university standards, college graduates will find it more difficult to find jobs in the future. Fingers will be pointed at the schools and those who run them, and many will inevitably face harsh restructuring.

Instead of simply campaigning for independence, universities and education authorities should work together to find ways to improve their budgets and financial management, while also upgrading the quality of the education they provide. Universities should use the momentum of liberalization to reinvent themselves.

*The writer is the president of Sungkyunkwan University.
By Kim Jun-young
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