Why bother having a top university?

I may be a little late to this party, but here goes. About 60 years ago, Korea (the Republic, ie the South) had a standard of living roughly on a par with Upper Volta. Its people were poorer than the average Egyptian. Now it is a rich nation, a democracy

and a feared international competitor on the economic stage.

As with Japan in earlier decades, Korea’s success has come at a price, including massive work stress and even more gigantic pressure on school and university students. The nation has been clear that a highly educated population was essential for economic success. Now, Korea is getting more expansive. Its cultural centre in London shows that it wants soft power as well as export-powered material success.

As part of this process, the old-established Seoul National University has been built up as a world-class Korean university. In the QS World University Rankings it comes out in 42nd spot in the world, and in QS@s Asian rankings it is in fourth place, just behind Hong Kong and Singaporean institutions that have the advantage of working in English.

As a newish and vigorous democracy, Korea has lively politics, and in the run-up to forthcoming elections, the opposition DUP has had a great idea. Let’s kill of SNU. Instead, its top people (academics and students) would be scattered throughout the land, and with it (spot the hand of the politician here) the money that goes with them.

This idea is utterly doomed. While many members of parliament might welcome some more spending in their constituency, SNU is the alma mater of a clear majority of Korean parliamentarians. And Koreans feel intense loyalty to their old college. By contrast, “only” 30 per cent of UK MPs went to Oxford or Cambridge. (10 per cent did not attend university – these useful facts from The Sutton Trust.)

Of course, it is possible to argue that SNU is too big a beast in the Korean university jungle. It has long had special funding to which other universities had limited or no access.

However, the real point is that this money has done what it was meant to do. SNU is a world institution that gives weight to the Korean education system by being the top predator in the food chain.

More to the point, Korea has other big, successful universities such as Korea U and Yonsei (often banded together with SNU as the elite SKY group), and KAIST and POSTECH, technology specialists with massively growing world renown. KAIST has also had a lot of special funding and is key to the nations’s central belt of high-technology innovation. KAIST and POSTECH were 90th and 98th in the World University Rankings in 2011, with Yonsei at 129 and Korea at 190. A word too for Ewha Woman’s University at 344, fighting the long battle for women

in Korean life.

Despite these successes, SNU is likely to remain the main event in the Korean university system. Killing it off would gain the other institutions little, and would leave Korea looking foolish on the world stage. I know from many visits that Korea cares more than any other nation about its standing in world university rankings. Killing off its top institution would be a remarkable act of self-mutilation. Instead, a slow reform that equalises the resources for all Korean universities is the way ahead, and will leave SNU in pride of place.

(Declaration – I founded the THES/QS rankings and now work with QS. I also present on the matter at events around the world, often in Korea.)

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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