University of Ulsan president challenges graduate goals
Yeon-Cheon Oh says serving society can be as rewarding as getting rich
November 8, 2016
High hopes: shown praying for children sitting college entrance exams, these Korean parents are among those being urged to redefine their definitions of success
South Korea’s higher education participation rate is one of the highest in the world,
driven by the promise that studying at university will bring increased wealth and status.
But what happens when the growth in the number of graduates outstrips the
expansion of the job market? With 69 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds
in the countryhaving been to university, and technological change
making career paths even more unpredictable, one university president
has argued that students and parents need to“reset” their expectations of the impact
that getting a degree can have.
Yeon-Cheon Oh, president of
the University of Ulsan, told Times Higher Education that
while many families’ definitions
of success revolved around
Wall Street and London’s
financial market”, only
“small number” of graduates
could attain such goals.
Relying on such a narrow conception
of success was “not possible” in the 21st century because many graduate
jobs were becoming automated, according to Professor Oh, who warned that thinking
in such a way would lead only to “frustration”.
“Parents’ and students’ minds should be reset – their expectations a
nd their way
of thinking for the future,” Professor Oh said. “Society’s supply
diminishing while demand for the future from the students’
and parents’side is the same as before. There must be some disparity.”
Professor Oh, who served as president of Seoul National University
from 2010 to 2014, argued that South Korea would have a “healthier”
society if it
s “basic value system” was expanded to recognise good
citizenship,self-autonomy and self-reliance as things that were worth
graduates aiming for,
as well as financial success.
“Good students with ambition [could] join an elementary school as
teachers; why [don’t] they…go there?” Professor Oh asked.
“Medical doctors who graduate from Seoul National University, they can work for local villages, for communities. Now they [are seen as] failures as doctors if they work in local villages.
“We should change our value system. Without a changing value system,
there is no solution.”
The disparity between expectations and reality is a problem not only for
students and their families, Professor Oh explained. Discontent over the
financial returns on a degree had led
many parents to question why tuition fees were so high, compared with
the anticipated returns, he said, and politicians had often opted to support
these concerns, leading to restrictions on fee increases and financial
difficulties for institutions.
In particular, Professor Oh argued that private universities should receive
government support to cover their running costs, in order to help them mee
t the growing demand for higher education in South Korea.
Ulsan is a private institution that was for much of its early history
supported by the Hyundai companies, which are based
in the region, but that support is now declining. At the moment,
private universities can apply only for
project-specific government grants and are “suffering” as a result,
Professor Oh said.
“There is no big difference between national and private universities;
function and expectation are the same, but the funding structures
are totally different
,” he said. “I think [we need] reform of the higher education
I think the difference between private and national universities
in funding should be reduced.”
Professor Oh said that such reforms were vital if South Korea’s
were to continue to develop and, ultimately, catch up with the
education systems of the Western world. But he acknowledged
changes would be difficult in a society where everyone had a
view on how
universities should operate.
“If we successfully reform our system, we can catch up with
and we can pass
the Western [universities]; otherwise we may face
a difficult situation,”
Professor Oh said. “Korea is a democratic society
and its political
system is very
diverse: in one sense our country is a model country
on the other hand, it is hard to make drastic reform.”