Our ivory towers

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Our ivory towers

The number of Korean universities has grown sharply over the last two decades, and the number of people with master’s and doctoral degrees has also surged. In terms of the number of dissertations in science and engineering, Seoul National University ranks among the world’s top 30 universities. The rankings of other universities are also climbing fast. According to rankings from the British group Quacquarelli Symonds and other evaluations of universities worldwide, Korean institutions have made big strides.

But despite their advances, Korean universities leave much to be desired. They produce few internationally-accredited scholars or Nobel Prize winners. Korean universities are not given much credit by the industrial sector as underscored by the ranking of national economic competitiveness by the International Institute for Management Development, a renowned Swiss business school. Korean universities also have yet to gain full recognition from their own people. Many Koreans think going abroad is the only way to study.

Some would argue that Korean schools are underrated. But the academic fraternity admits that Korean higher education cannot be regarded as world class. In a knowledge-based global economy, a country cannot stay ahead in competitiveness if it lags behind in innovation and creativity. Korean research universities are preoccupied and have questionable contributions to the challenges and problems our society faces.

Park Hee-jae, dubbed the country’s chief technology officer as the head of strategic planning at the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, laments that Korean professors are engaged in research activities to build their careers and reputations rather than to benefit national interests. It is shameful that research and development work by Korean intellectuals and scientists mostly serves to polish their own stars rather than contribute to society more broadly.

University research must be improved in order to gain better recognition and respect. There must be improvement in quality instead of quantity. Universities mostly count the numbers of theses they produce rather than analyze their originality. Professors choose themes that are guaranteed to attract funding.

Even more problematic is the mindset of researchers who prefer an easier way instead of the lonely and hard path that necessarily accompanies creativity. Korea’s habit of being the “fast follower” instead of the “first mover” in the industrial sector has permeated the academic field as well. But a new way must be found so that the country can produce world-class scholars and Nobel Prize winners.

The academic sector also must broaden its perspective and merge various fields of studies for joint work. Korea now excels in very specific academic fields. But few individuals are encouraged to gain from the experience or summon the will to apply and integrate these specific talents into new developments. When Apple first made the iPhone, it had few parts that needed to be created. Steve Jobs brought together existing technologies and blended them with imagination and insight into social and human needs. It wasn’t wizardry. It was creative thinking.

The key challenges that modern society faces - such as energy needs and an aging population - can only be solved through a marriage of knowledge of humanities and sociology, and science and technology. Many Korean universities are armed with talented experts in specific areas who can help tackle future social problems. But instead of joining forces and merging their talents to seek solutions and provide direction for common problems and goals of our society, universities and professors are preoccupied with their own selfish interests. If Korean universities broaden their spectrum and muster the wisdom for bigger goals and a grander vision, Korea too could produce leading think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and Brookings Institution. If a number of nonprofit public think tanks can offer independent and innovative policy solutions, politicians also won’t rely on a few experts in campaign camps to concoct half-baked ideas during election seasons.

Korean universities face various challenges. They must reinvent and redevelop themselves to go boldly forward.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily.

*The author is president of the Institute for Basic Science and a physics professor at Seoul National University.

by Oh Se-jung

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