BENJAMIN DISRAELI, a great nineteenth-century British prime minister, said that “a university should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning.” In Disraeli’s view, college is supposed to be a place where students go to learn and to experience the profound intellectual challenges of academia. But that sentiment does not seem to hold anymore in contemporary Korean society. Many colleges in Korea seem to disregard the educational responsibility of a university and instead focus on raising the employment rates of their graduates. One might wonder, then, what exactly caused such a change in the nature of the academic world?
The current situation
As time has passed, the nation’s social, cultural, and economic circumstances have changed. People’s perception of universities and college education has changed as well. In the beginning, the university was known in the Western Classical era as an *academia*, a Greek word for a community of students and scholars engaged in higher education. However, the meaning has expanded to include other more conventional roles that universities now have. Lee Byung-sik (Prof., Dept. of Education) said that many scholars have come to view universities as a multiversity, a term coined by Clark Kerr, the first chancellor of UC Berkley. Kerr felt that a university had much more to offer to society, and to explain the expanded and complicated role of a modern university Kerr proposed three purposes of a university: education, research, and social services.
Today, the purpose for attending a university, which was once mainly academic, has shifted towards being a necessary step before starting work. Eun Isaac (Soph., Dept. of Health and Nutrition, Korea Univ.) points out that students no longer think of universities as a place for academic challenges, but more as preparatory schools for the real world. “Getting a college degree is just another step one must take in order to get accepted in society. Without it one is put under a huge disadvantage, and even perceived as being odd.”
Why employment rates matter
Ironically, this change in perception is mainly due to a move by the Korean government to solve the unemployment crisis, in fact. The graduate employment rate was not always as highly regarded by universities as it is today. The change in how people view the purpose of a university in Korea is partly due to the administrative changes made by the government. In 2011, the former administration introduced a new university evaluation system in order to mitigate the overwhelming number of universities in Korea. Its purpose was to identify inadequate universities to close down. One of the key elements of the evaluation is the employment rate of the graduates of the university. This standard was chosen mainly in order to assess how much contribution to society the university was making in terms of producing efficient workers.
There are currently over 200 4-year-universities in Korea. However, there has been a decline in the university enrollment rates over the past few years. Kang Sang-jin (Prof., Dept. of Education) says that with the current number of universities in Korea, it is possible for every single high school graduate to enroll in a university. However, the numbers of high school graduates are gradually declining. According to Statistics Korea, the estimated number of high school graduates in 2013 is 640,000, but the number is estimated to drop to around 560,000 by 2017. However, the number of applicants needed to fill the minimum university capacity for 2017 is 570,000 high school graduates. Such a drop in potential applicants has started to produce pressure on universities to raise their competitiveness in order to attract students by increasing their employment rate. Universities that have failed to raise their competitiveness have experienced dire consequences, with their government funds cut off and even running the risk of being closed or merged with another university.
In fact, according to the Korea News Network (KNN), Kyungnam University has been preparing for such demographic changes. The administration dropped the number of freshmen by 92 in 2013. Accordingly, liberal arts majors, which have a comparatively lower graduate employment rate, are in danger of being either merged or abolished, with the student capacity dropped by 127 students. However, departments with a relatively high employment rate such as the engineering majors have seen an increase in the department capacity by 35 students. Similarly, Tongmyong University awarded three departments, Dept. of Child Welfare, Dept. of Ship Engineering, Dept. of Car Engineering, for achieving high employment rates. Universities have thus shown favoritism toward departments with higher employment rates.
Students have also long-since favored majors with higher chances of employment. “I think it is inevitable that I study management,” said Seo Young-jun (Soph., Dept. of Theology, Yonsei Univ.). “Theology is a great field of study, but I do not think it will help me find a decent job.” He continued and explained that most of his classmates who study theology are also looking to double major or change their majors.
How we should view the issue
But circumstances have forced this kind of change upon the academic community. According to Kang, it is only natural for society to assess universities based on their employment rates. He says that there is “degree inflation” in Korea that is leading to a surplus of educated workers. Too many highly qualified graduates for only a few spots that actually require these qualifications means that many of them are forced into unemployment. This is a direct result of having too many higher education institutions. Kang argues that although the government must regulate universities, the methods by which they are evaluated require improvement. As such, the government’s decision to include the employment rate as an assessment category is quite well justified, since it could help differentiate a university’s efficiency.
Lee, although having similar views on the necessity of such an evaluation system with Kang, says that the employment rate issue should not be taken so lightly. He points out that the shift in the trends of university education is due to the students themselves. Students enroll in courses in which higher grades are easier to attain. Classes that are not favored by the students are in danger of being closed while the university opens more popular classes. The choice of popular classes can also affect how much resources are allocated to each department, thus affecting the quality and number of new publications by professors and making funding of new research programs more difficult. Cho Young-jin (Soph., Dept. of Political Science and Int. Studies) said that although this is unfortunate, reality pushes students to improve themselves in any way they can in order to gain a higher chance of employment.
A change in the system
The fear of unemployment that haunts many students is not something that can be solved by the school alone. Kang points out that there is nothing the school can do directly to solve the unemployment crisis. The school has a very limited role and despite many universities helping students to better themselves, it cannot directly help them get a job. Lee points out that a university is not meant to be an employment education center and, as such, students should not think of the university as an automatic gateway to a high-paying job. Alternatively, universities should be thought of as a place where students can learn to handle the vast ocean of knowledge provided to them and to think for themselves.
Lee also says that there needs to be changes in the university evaluation system. The current system distributes 35% of the points to acceptance rate, 20% to employment rate, and 45% to others. The criteria that fall under the third category include number of professors, amount of scholarships given, and how much the university relies on tuition fees. Lee believes that none of these assessment values are academically relevant to the quality of education a university provides. This is in contrast to many university-ranking systems in America, which include research excellence and influence as evaluation factors. Instead, he suggests that evaluations should focus on the academic development of the university. This characterization will allow the school to develop as an educational institution while also expanding its academic boundaries, thus allowing universities to regain their original identity as a community for education and increasing knowledge.
Both Lee and Kang agree on the notion that the government is overextending itself within the academic realm. Despite the government’s intention to help develop academia by making regulations, it is actually preventing universities from making proper improvements. Kang says that in order for the universities to grow in the future, all the restraints imposed by the government have to be removed. Instead, Kang points out that there is a need for universities to form an independent organization to help create and administer university policy. Such an organization should be established with the consensus of all universities in Korea and have professors as the core individuals running the assembly. With the establishment of such an organization, universities will have the freedom to focus on achieving educational and academic accomplishments without regulations holding them back.
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Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” However, the role of a university is no longer focused solely on education as the emphasis on producing higher employment rates has become heavier. Knowledge cannot bring about change if there is no person using it. As such, although the university needs to fulfill society’s demand for high quality workers to some extent, it is important that the university does not divert from its original purpose as an institution of education, research, and social services and to acknowledge a university’s primary role as an academia.