Universities in trouble

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Universities in trouble

Universities have lost their way. They have failed to play the role society has asked of them. The crisis of universities is not just their own problem. It will lead to a crisis for the country, and that is frustrating.

An important responsibility of universities is to provide the driving force behind society’s advancement by producing new intellectual assets through professors’ research and by accurately reading and predicting the changes of our time.

Furthermore, universities, through education, should provide human resources, the key to national growth, by supporting students to develop their potential and creativity and learn the best professional knowledge. They also need to help students to be equipped with proper judgment, social responsibility and civic awareness. Because handing down the typical knowledge of the past can no longer prepare for the complex changes of the future, universities must allow students to have strong potential to actively adapt to the changes of the time throughout their lives, no matter what professions they choose, and to continue learning.

But universities today are hardly playing such roles in research and education. Most universities are becoming occupational schools, producing manpower to immediately work in industry, rather than educating human resources with insight and potential. And the government is leading this trend to meet businesses’ short-term demands, which can change any time, as we can see in the recent project that connected universities and industries.

What has gone wrong? The government’s excessive control over universities was the primary cause, and the universities, which only sought expansions without putting in effort to protect their autonomy, are also responsible.

During the dictatorship, the government continuously censored universities in order to prevent them from becoming obstacles for maintaining the regime. At the same time, Korean universities, which lacked tradition and history, actively pursued quantitative growth over qualitative growth.

And the new authorization system, introduced after democratization, worsened the situation. After it became free to establish a university as long as some standards were met, universities opened recklessly.

Whether an existing school or a new one, most universities have weak financial foundations and cannot continue without government assistance. And almost all administrations pressured universities using money.

At one point, some argued that Seoul National University be shut down. And there was also a time when barring the college entrance examination and high school grade system as well as preventing admissions in return for monetary donations was on the agenda.

Government control over universities recently peaked over the approval of the president of a national university. In order to protect the direct election system of university presidents, a symbol of a school’s autonomy, Prof. Ko Hyun-chul of Pusan National University committed suicide.

Despite his sacrifice, the government did not approve the directly elected president of the university for five months. It only approved the outcome on May 10, after the ruling Saenuri Party suffered a crushing defeat in the general election. And yet, seven out of 45 national universities still have no president, because the government has not approved the presidents elected by faculty members. No administration in history has ever shown such unreasonable obstinacy and high-handedness.

The government is also controlling universities’s research and education funding for professors. Seoul National University was recently warned by the administration for having done so without legal grounds. After its incorporation, the university’s autonomy has actually decreased. It is no wonder other national universities were reluctant to be incorporated, despite the government’s recommendation. Universities are trapped in bureaucracy.

Despite the lamentable situation, no one — not the presidents nor the professors — is speaking out. You have to fight for freedom, and you also have to fight for autonomy. Members of the universities must not just submit to government policy. They must explore if a policy is appropriate for the future of the country and present a different direction if it is not. Universities grow by breathing autonomy and consuming investments.

Universities also need to change on their own. Some private foundations treat students as cash cows and only focus on growth rather than on building a unique and specialized school. As a result, they fail to grow in quality. They are flooded with temporary-contract faculty and students, inviting restructuring for their lack of competitiveness.

The government must not try to excessively intervene in the restructuring of universities. Rather than forcibly changing them, the government must allow them to shut down if they cannot survive.

Korea’s future is dependent on human resources. Therefore, the government must provide unconditional and unlimited support to universities. And universities must produce new knowledge and the talent demanded by society through distinctive research and education programs, because in Korea, people are the only definite capital.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 13, Page 31

*The author is chairman of the Korea Institute for Shared Growth and a former prime minister.

Chung Un-chan
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