Blog of the International Sociological Association (ISA)

Who Controls Universities in South Korea?

March 6, 2010 16 Comments

By Soon-Kyoung Cho, Ewha Womans University, South Korea

In November 2008, chancellors and university officials from 68 universities gathered in the Plaza Hotel in Seoul to participate in a briefing session on the 2008 University Evaluation by Joong-Ang Ilbo, one of South Korea’s major newspapers. Presidents from the Korean Council for University Education, the Chancellors’ Council for National and Public Colleges, and the Chancellors’ Council for Private Colleges also appeared. In its newsletter, Joong-Ang Ilbo wrote that “the power of the Joong-Ang Ilbo University Evaluation was once again reconfirmed.”

Since 1994, Joong-Ang Ilbo, over which Samsung Group has practical control, has conducted an evaluation of domestic universities and reported a ranking table as top news on the paper’s front page, following the US News & World Report’s America’s Best Colleges ranking model. Another newspaper company, Chosun Ilbo, which is considered one of the most conservative in South Korea, began its own college appraisal in 2008. With the cooperation of QS (Quacquarelli Symonds), a medium-sized British company, Chosun Ilbo has run college evaluations on 463 colleges from 11 Asian countries, including 106 colleges from Korea.

The university evaluations and rankings phenomenon has become a hot topic in university administrations in South Korea. It is evident that university evaluations by the media are one of the most effective ways of controlling universities and the academic community. Universities have continuously implemented the guidelines of the appraisals and also have made strenuous efforts to move up the rankings.

The university evaluations and ranking reports have accelerated fierce competition among universities. All-out efforts have been made to get higher points in the evaluations. Major universities have made it their top priorities to enhance research capabilities of the faculty members, recruit foreign professors, increase the number of courses taught in English, introduce high-tech equipment, and construct more buildings.

The rapid increase of college tuitions, the attraction of business resources, and the acquisition of universities by conglomerates (i.e., Samsung and Doosan) all have much to do with such college evaluations. Universities have increasingly been modeled after business corporations in their operations. Increasing numbers of universities have implemented restructuring as proposed by multinational consulting companies such as McKinsey & Company. Colleges in Korea have been moving toward marketization more than ever before. Joong-Ang University, which was taken over by a major Korean conglomerate, Doosan Group, made Accounting a required course for all students since 2009. The chairperson of the board of directors of the university, who was formerly the CEO of Doosan Group, argued that college graduates need to be able to read financial statements of firms.

Major indices for university evaluations include papers per faculty member (the source used in the Chosun Ilbo evaluation is Scopus, thus only papers in international journals are counted), citations per paper, number of courses that are provided in English, portion of international professors and students, and employer review. For many major universities in South Korea, gaining good scores in these evaluations has become one of their most important tasks.

This environment has made it more difficult for researchers at universities to produce knowledge which is urgently needed for civil society. The number of articles in journals with wider readership has been reduced significantly. The articles published in popular magazines as well as books for public audiences are not taken as ‘academic’ work. Magazines published for mass circulation, which had an important influence on democratization movements until the mid-1990s, are now experiencing difficulties due to a lack of contributors.

Books are often not well received in determining evaluation points. Faculty members thus are reluctant to spend their time writing books because it takes much less time for them to work on journal articles. Books for wider audiences, in particular, receive little credit because they are not considered academic, especially those intended primarily for public audiences. Books such as The Second Shift by Arlie Hochschild, Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, The Overworked American by Juliet Schore and The Corrosion of Character by Richard Sennett would not be favorably recognized as academic works in South Korea. This is because they are not written in academic formats and thus are claimed to lack expertise, as they could be easily read by the non-academic.

In Korea’s academic world, popularity and academic quality are often reciprocally arranged. Those works with great popularity are claimed to not have academic quality or expertise. The distance between academia and civil society is moving farther apart. Neither public audiences nor policy makers in South Korea read the American Sociological Review.

For faculties, publishing articles in professional journals is a top priority. Because of this, it is not easy for scholars to afford time and space to be concerned with the lives of others. Nor is it easy to reflect on one’s own work. It is not safe to ask questions which deviate from existing academic ones. To pursue new paradigms different from existing research programs is also difficult. The current university evaluation and ranking system formulated and run by private firms has effectively ruined universities as a source of critique and ‘inconvenient truth.’

Although the media control of universities has continued for over 15 years now with little resistance, the cracks in the evaluation and ranking model are beginning to show. During a general meeting of the Korean Council for University Education, which was held in early 2010, a number of chancellors raised objections to the evaluations by media. They noted that the evaluations hardly show credibility and objectivity in determining college ratings. Furthermore, they argued that the university evaluation and rating system is not designed for enhancing the quality of research and education, but for lucrative business. They criticized the commercial purposes of the evaluations, claiming that they instigate excessive competition among colleges to get advertising revenues from them.

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