The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Higher education mismatch

Government and universities should push for drastic reforms for future

By Korea Herald

Published : June 14, 2022 - 05:30

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President Yoon Suk-yeol recently asked the Education Ministry to recast its policies in order to train more semiconductor engineers at universities, a topic that draws keen attention amid the protracted shortage of chips.

South Korean chipmakers such as Samsung Electronics and SK hynix are eagerly searching for graduates with expertise relevant to the semiconductor technology. Given the two top-ranked chipmakers’ clout on the global market and US President Joe Biden’s high-profile visit to a Samsung chip facility last month, it is understandable that Yoon is enthusiastic about expanding the talent pool for the industry.

In response to the president’s suggestion, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said the government would drastically expand the number of admissions for related departments in both the metropolitan and local regions.

Policymakers are considering a plan to jack up the cap of university students majoring in semiconductor and related technologies to around 20,000. If the plan indeed gets implemented successfully, it will definitely offer a much-needed boost in terms of new talents to the domestic chip industry.

But the shortage of highly skilled engineers is not limited to the chip industry. As with other global tech companies, Korean firms are in search of engineers with expertise in high-tech sectors ranging from artificial intelligence to biotechnology to electric vehicle manufacturing. But qualified candidates are in short supply. In the information technology sector alone, companies are expected to see a shortfall of 15,000 workers this year.

The country’s top 10 conglomerates unveiled plans to recruit some 330,000 workers in the next five years, or during the term of the Yoon administration, which should come as a big opportunity for college students or graduates who struggle to get a job.

But there is a lingering concern about a major mismatch in general. Even though companies are increasingly looking for job seekers such as software developers in the fast-evolving tech-related fields, Korean universities are structurally ill-prepared to catch up with the changing trends.

It is extremely difficult for university administrators to merge or reinvent departments to meet a fresh demand for a particular sector. There are two fundamental obstacles to reforming Korea’s higher education system.

The first problem is the tight control the government wields on education institutions at every level, including tuition fees, lecture hours, numbers of students and organizational details. Even if college administrators armed with a pioneering spirit want to change the system, they have to get permission from the Education Ministry, and the chance of getting approval for drastic reform is fairly slim.

For instance, universities both in the metropolitan and local regions -- even state-run colleges, many of which are in a better condition than private counterparts -- complain about the state-imposed freeze of tuition fees. Indeed, fees have been fixed for 14 years and many small colleges outside of Seoul are struggling to shore up their balance sheets amid a dwindling number of applicants.

The government’s overregulation is certainly hurting, but some critics argue that allowing universities to raise tuition fees will not solve the chronic problems that have plagued Korean universities for decades.

The reason is linked to the second -- and more crucial -- obstacle that universities have to overcome if they want to resolve the widening mismatch between the students they teach and the workers companies want. Except for a few outliers, many universities are slow to reimagine their roles, and some, if not many, tenured professors idle away their time and draw on compensation from tuition.

Tenured professors here enjoy plenty of exclusive privileges, two of which are lifetime job security and paid sabbaticals. But there are doubts about whether those who do not research vigorously deserve such enviable benefits.

Some may argue that the majority of Korean professors are working hard. But the data tells otherwise. Quacquarelli Symonds, a British firm analyzing higher education institutions, announced QS World University Rankings on Thursday. Forty-one Korean universities were included in the list of 1,418 institutions, but only six made it to the top 100. Worse, 29 Korean universities -- about 70 percent -- failed to get into the top 600 when it comes to citations per faculty.

Given the two major obstacles and limitations of a one-off expansion of certain majors, the government and universities should strive together to come up with drastic reform plans to truly recast the outdated higher education system in Korea.