Oh Se-jung is a man with a heavy burden. Although he heads South Korea’s most prestigious university, an institution largely dampened by the existential crisis threatening to engulf much of the country’s higher education sector, he is deeply worried about the future of other institutions in the country.
“Of course, we enjoy recognition and prestige, but a heavier expectation and a sense of responsibility are also imposed on us,” said the president of Seoul National University (SNU). Times Higher Education in the latest in our Talking Leadership series.
A report released late last year predicted that nearly half of South Korea’s 385 universities could close within the next quarter century. Oh thinks the situation could be even worse. Based on projections of student cohorts, “in 20 years, only about 40 universities the size of SNU will be needed,” he says.
Some institutions are already not admitting enough students to continue to be viable, and that’s a particular problem for some parts of the country, he says. The capital, Seoul, and its surrounding region are home to more than 50% of the population, and an even higher percentage of the younger generation. It’s the rural universities that can’t attract enough students, “so they might collapse in a few years,” adds Oh.
He worries about the ripple effect of the closures on local economies and communities: “If the university is closed, the local community is also at risk. In the end, it really breaks the whole ecosystem of universities and also the national economy. So it’s a big problem. »
Oh thinks the solution lies in strengthening rural universities so that they attract students and strengthen local economies. “If they build their research capacity, they can create jobs by creating start-ups and collaborating with local industries,” he says.
SNU strives to improve these universities by offering exchange programs that allow their students to spend a semester or a year at SNU. During Covid, they were forced to connect online, but the institution hopes to return to in-person exchanges soon.
The other solution, says Oh, is to emphasize lifelong learning. However, this will require change, he explains, because only 20 years ago universities were riding the wave of an abundance of young students and therefore not investing in continuing education. The government also spends less on lifelong learning than other developed countries, he says. “We need to change the attitude of the government as well as the universities.”
Next month, South Korea will have a new government; conservative People Power Party candidate Yoon Suk-yeol, who won by a hair’s breadth, will take office. Oh hopes the government will recognize that strengthening rural universities will help the economy, although he says he is unsure of the position of the new president because higher education was not a political issue during the election campaign.
The weakening of other universities in South Korea presents a unique problem for Oh and SNU. Unlike the United States, for example, where many prestigious universities specialize in certain subjects, SNU must extend its network.
“If we leave out an academic field, that field can’t really survive in our country,” Oh says.
When he was dean of SNU more than a decade ago, Oh invited 40 professors from other countries to assess the university, and a common comment was that it was too spread out, given the size of the departments . The answer, according to Oh, again lies in strengthening other universities – “then we can share our burden with them”.
Another reason why Oh wants all Korean universities to up their game is to fight prejudice in the publishing world. He spent several years in the United States early in his career, and while at Stanford University he had no problem submitting papers to top journals. When he returned to South Korea and submitted what he thought was his best work to date, the article was rejected with a comment suggesting he had read some of the basic research on his topic.
“I felt like it was really biased. I didn’t get that kind of feedback when I was in the States. When I submitted an article, no one said you have to read all these classics,” he says.
Although the incident took place 40 years ago, when South Korea’s research capability was less advanced, publication bias is still a concern for Oh: “To be truly competitive in the global market, all our institutions must improve. Otherwise, there will be prejudice against you.
Oh himself studied at SNU, and he says he never wanted to do anything other than become an academic. After completing a doctorate at Stanford and spending three years working in research laboratories in the United States, he returned to SNU as a professor and taught for more than 30 years.
“I thought a lot about whether I should stay in the United States or go back to Korea. And what I realized was that if I stayed in the United States, I would live a comfortable life but I would just be one of them. But if I came back to Korea then, I could change the Korean university society,” he says.
In particular, he hopes to improve his country by combating what he sees as creeping polarization.
“Many beliefs are not based on objective facts,” he says. “[People] tend to listen only to what they like.
SNU’s offering is a new Institute for Future Strategy – a multidisciplinary think tank that will provide the public and government with objective data and facts. The institute has five research themes, one of which is polarization and the crisis of democracy.
Although South Korea is democratic and recent general elections saw an extremely high turnout, Oh says “people tend to go to extremes.”
His teachers know this problem with their students, and Oh even sees it in his own social circle.
“When I talk to my friends, they’re really polarized. They argue [with] each other. They can’t come to a consensus,” he says. “We have to try to understand the reasons and the costs and try to see what we can do to alleviate this problem.”
The new institute will also study low birth rates and aging populations and their implications for society, as well as pandemics and the future of science and technology. Another objective will be the evolution of the world order.
Due to its geographic location, South Korea is “at the forefront of conflicts between the United States and Russia or China,” Oh says. “We are concerned about the Soviet and American conflict. Korea is really in the middle, so we have to worry about it and what to expect.
South Korea’s biggest trading partner is China, but it is militarily aligned with the United States, he explains.
“China doesn’t like what we’re doing with the United States,” he said, adding that five years ago China stopped showing Korean films as a sign of dissatisfaction with South Korea.
On Korea’s cultural exports, how does Oh feel about the brutally violent portrayal of his country portrayed in Netflix’s global hit? squid game?
“I feel like it shows some aspects of our society, Korean society, which is really too competitive in every aspect,” he says.
Oh believes the country should instead be more collaborative: “We need to give a lot more people a second chance.” His work at the SNU, and in strengthening the wider South Korean higher education system, may well do just that.
Born: Seoul, 1953
Academic Qualifications:BSc in Physics from Seoul National University; PhD in Physics from Stanford University
Lives with:His wife; he has a daughter
Academic Hero:German physicist Werner Heisenberg
This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with leaders from the world’s top universities on how they solve common strategic problems and implement change. Follow the series here.