University challenge

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 January, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 January, 2004, 12:00am

A part-time lecturer at a top private university in Seoul is the latest whistle-blower to expose mounting problems at South Korean universities. The German language tutor shocked many by revealing corruption and incompetence at his establishment.

According to a letter he posted on the school's website, professors in the department embezzled research grants that were supposed to go to assistants and conspired to hire incompetent staff who sweet-talked their way in.

The claims may just be malicious talk from a discontented academic who unsuccessfully tried to land a full-time job at the university. An investigation by authorities will determine the veracity of his statements. But education experts believe the accusations more or less reflect the reality of the troubled system.

South Korean colleges face numerous problems. Their academic standards are falling and graduates have difficulty finding and performing well in jobs because of the inadequate education they have received. Professors often neglect their research and lecture duties and instead indulge in school politics or seek government or corporate jobs. None of South Korea's universities rank among the world's top 200.

But to get into the universities, particularly the good ones, students have to study day and night to pass the competitive entrance exam. The competition is so tough that some who are rejected by Seoul National University, the best in South Korea, are often accepted by elite US universities such as Harvard or Stanford.

But once in college, South Korean students have little motivation to study hard. In many cases, professors fail to guide or inspire them because of outdated teaching skills or lack of knowledge. As a result, they lose out to graduates from foreign colleges in the competition for jobs.

Growing numbers of South Korean students are, therefore, choosing foreign universities over local institutions. So much so that even many middle or elementary school pupils study abroad, living with their mothers, while their fathers stay behind to work.

Small universities in provincial areas have been severely affected by falling enrolment numbers - a trend exacerbated by the country's declining birth rate. Some provincial schools are only half full. Larger schools in cities are better off.

But if the misconduct alleged at the private Seoul university continues, they too will face empty campuses.