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From good to great: What’s next for Korean higher education

Chi Young-suk
Chi Young-suk
Over the last 30 years, Korea has experienced unmatched progress in higher education. The percentage of high-school graduates attending higher education institutions has steadily increased, with Korea now ranking first among 25 OECD countries in terms of the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds who have tertiary degrees. This boom in higher education has led to an increasingly well-educated population.

Much of this success is due to the firm foundation laid by K-12 education. Universities have four short years to miraculously transform students into productive contributors to industry, academia, and civil society a task made much easier by the solid preparation students receive before arriving at university. In the space here, I will not elaborate on K-12 education, but I would like to point to it as the backbone of much of what I will discuss.

This success is also due to Korea’s consistent growth in R&D investment and research output. Korea’s R&D spending is about 3.5 percent of its GDP, greater than that of the U.S., and above the OECD’s 3 percent benchmark.

Between 1996 and 2007 Korea ranked sixth in growth in R&D expenditure, outperformed only by emerging research economies which naturally tend to experience high growth rates. In terms of research output, Korea has excelled as well. Between 2000 and 2005, Korea more than doubled its article output, and between 2005 and 2010 the number of papers published per year grew by about 60 percent. Korea is well ahead of its APAC counterparts, publishing 6.5 times more articles per capita than China and 20 times more than India.

Korea has also experienced steady growth in the average number of citations received per article, a metric used to measure article quality. One of the surest ways to foster continued growth in the average number of citations per article is to encourage international collaboration: a paper with one international co-author receives 1.6 times as many citations as a paper with no international collaboration.

Given the importance of trust in the research community, the most efficient way to increase collaboration is to nurture established relationships. For Korea, this means cultivating its deep bond with countries like the U.S., from which almost 80 percent of Korean Ph.D.-holders received their degrees.

Although the average number of citations is a simple and helpful way to measure quality, it should never be the sole metric used to assess research. Quality needs to be evaluated across a broad spectrum, using several measuring sticks.

Furthermore, not every institution is ― nor needs to be ― a top 100 research university. In a country of 50 million people, there is no “one-size-fits-all” for higher education: a single model cannot prepare students for the numerous post-graduation paths that are needed in any economy. Variety and diversity in higher education institutions enables them to produce the leaders and skilled workers society needs.

Indeed, that is the strength of a liberal arts education ― humanists become familiar with scientific methods and concepts, while scientists and engineers are exposed to literature, history, art and language. The diversity of experiences afforded by a liberal arts education and the flexibility to discover new passions and talents, rather than simply acquiring a proscribed set of skills, create bright, analytical multi-taskers who can tackle the complex problems of the future. Scientists and humanists must communicate with each other so that inter-disciplinary boundaries disappear, resulting in a stronger, more vibrant community of scholars.

A liberal arts education is particularly beneficial to scientists, because it encourages dexterity in language and communication, a skill as crucial in the humanities as in scientific research. So much of the success of a project is dependent on the ability to convey the relevance of one’s work to those outside the scientific community. Scientists and non-scientists must speak a common language, and the education of scientists needs to include an examination of the impact of their findings not just on their own fields, but on society at large.

Thus, in order for Korean research to reach its full potential, researchers need to go beyond both geographic and disciplinary boundaries, to increase international collaboration as well as interdisciplinary communication and understanding. Korea has already made huge strides in the number of students going on to earn tertiary degrees. We now need to focus on continuing to increase the quality and the diversity of higher education and research in Korea. 

By Chi Young-suk 

Chi Young-suk is the chairman of Elsevier, a world-leading provider of scientific, technical and medical information products and services based in Amsterdam. ― Ed.