The Prime rat race on campus

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The Prime rat race on campus

There is a maze, and dozens of hungry mice are waiting at the entrance. At the end of the maze is a piece of cheese. What would happen when the maze opens?

The mice would enter and go all around the maze to get to the cheese first. In the end, the mouse that reaches the cheese first will win, but all others would suffer. It is like the struggles of modern people competing for something excessively but ending up with nothing. In economics and sociology, a rat race is an endless, self-defeating and excessive competition for survival.

Lately, colleges and universities have been engaged in a rat race. The host of the game is the Ministry of Education, and the race is called Prime, the Program for Industrial Needs-Matched Education. The ministry is to provide 200 billion won ($166.3 million) annually for three years to colleges that make large-scale adjustments in capacity.

The goal is to resolve the mismatch between industrial needs and the number of students educated in colleges and universities with relevant majors. It is based on a forecast by the Korea Employment Information Service that by 2024, engineering and medical fields will be short 219,000 professionals, while liberal arts and social science fields will produce a surplus of 318,000. Each chosen school will receive up to 30 billion won per year, and it is considered “the biggest university assistance program in history.”

More than 100 colleges and universities are competing to adjust enrollment. The focus is on increasing the number of seats in engineering schools and reducing the number of students in the humanities and social sciences. Some colleges with no engineering schools want to newly add engineering majors.

However, the mood is heavy at schools, as they are turning into graves for the arts, literature, history and philosophy. The Chung-Ang University president stepped down as the plan to expand the school’s science and engineering departments and to drastically reduce the arts and humanities was met with great resistance. Silla University attempted to close the dance department to expand the engineering school, and as local artists protested, it has planned to drastically reduce the number of seats in the Korean literature, history and education departments.

Colleges and universities need to be restructured. However, when policy makers emphasize efficiency and speed only, they could be tempted to encourage a rat race. The poison of the rat race is standardization, and when all schools are standardized to meet the one goal of finding a job upon graduation, the characteristics of schools will disappear. When Goldman Sachs, one of the most elite financial firms, hires new graduates, they select not just finance majors but also students who studied history, literature, mathematics and engineering in college. An organization whose members have similar educational backgrounds lacks diversity in thinking. The innovation and creativity that can bring Korea into the ranks of leading nations comes from diversity. Is Korean education prepared to bear the flowers of diversity? The market is better at making the choice than the government.

The author is the business and industry news editor of the Korea JoongAng Daily.

JoongAng Ilbo, March 7, Page 34

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