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Transitioning to Industry-academia Cooperation-friendly Universities: A case study of Korean universities

Duckryul Hong, Ph.D.
Daegu University & Daegu Cyber University

1. General Appearance of Past Korean Universities

The history of Korean universities is not so long. Seoul National University had its 70th anniversary this year. There are a few private universities with a longer history, which were established by missionaries from the United States or Europe; a typical example is Yonsei University, which had its 120th anniversary this year. Daegu University, for which I serve, is also a private university, and celebrated its 60th anniversary this year.

Korean universities may have a shorter history in comparison to western universities, however they have advanced by leaps and bounds. Universities were also the driving force that led Korea's rapid industrialization. Some national universities, which received intensive government support, and several private universities that have a long history, have earned a name on the list of world-class universities. In addition, all those universities are research-oriented universities with excellent research competitiveness.

However, Korean universities have built up a considerable number of internal problems. A typical problem is the fact that approximately 200 universities and another 200 community colleges across the country became too uniform. Highly-qualified researchers that were trained at research-oriented universities either in developed countries or in Korea becoming employed as professors at universities and colleges around Korea, which were founded later on, played an important factor in this. The curriculum and methodology of research-oriented universities also settled in many universities and colleges around Korea, where students have no interest to become researchers, but only focus on getting a better job. In other words, students who wanted to prepare for employment were trained with the curriculum of research-oriented universities. Professors had little interest in students' employment. They were prone to teach their own theoretical and scholarly interests, regardless if they were necessary for students or not.

Of course, this did not meet the students' interests and needs. Even so, the students had no other choice. There are several reasons for that. First, the number of students who wanted to go to university always surpassed the total university admission quota around the country. Korea is well-known for parents' zeal toward education for their children, even during times of absolute poverty. About 30 to 40 years ago, parents in rural areas sent their children to college by selling their cattle or rice fields. There was always a surplus. A shortage of students was unimaginable, no matter which universities and no matter how poorly they operated, even with a teacher-centered approach. The structure where universities and professors reigned over students, the very recipients of education, remained.

Second, it was because of the great wage gap among academic background. The wage gap between corporate employees who were high school graduates and those who were university graduates was vast. As a result, high school graduates and their parents were desperate enough to enter universities that they would take on considerable economic burdens. University graduation was believed to be the path toward advancement and in fact, it was; thus, the demand for university education overflowed.

Consequently, universities nationwide became homogeneous with the structure of research-oriented university, regardless of education consumers' expectation or needs. A provider-centered structure became the standard in terms of department structure, department curriculum, role of faculty and assessment system, and even teaching methods. Students were always only the target of the instruction, and so they became distrustful of university education. Enterprises that employ university graduates also expressed their discontent about higher education that was far from the needs of the companies and society. Meanwhile, Korean universities kept their vested interests by reigning over students, enterprises, and society, and without innovating themselves.

2. Crises Facing Korean Universities

Those Korean universities faced a sudden crisis. The first epicenter of the crisis was the rapid population drop. The number of high school graduates in 2010 was 633,000, but it fell to 575,000 in 2016. In 2018, the number will fall to 557,000, which will be less than the total capacity of Korea's college intake. This is an unprecedented situation in the history of Korean universities. Furthermore, that number has been predicted to plunge to 472,000 by 2020 and to 390,000 by 2024.

The second factor that drove Korean universities into a crisis was the change in the industrial structure. Whereas the industrial structure changed radically, the structure of the workforce that universities produced and their departmental formation could not catch up in accordance with the change in industrial structures; thus, a serious discord between the labor demands of society and the workforce provided by universities occurred. The third factor of the crisis is serious youth unemployment. In addition to the discord between industrial structures and universities' departmental systems, youth unemployment in Korea became critical, owing to Korea's economic transition to a low-growth system and a jobless growth system. Now, high school graduates are choosing universities and departments that are helpful for employment, or even show a tendency to seek employment immediately after graduating from high school.

The environmental changes surrounding the universities can be summarized in one word: "transition." Transition from the old provider-centered market to the new consumer-centered market. First of all, most universities that rely on tuition income must listen to the needs of students to ensure a steady stream of students. They are asked to transition their operations from research-oriented to education-focused. Education has also been forced to convert from an academic focus, namely theory-focused education to produce researchers, to an employment focus, namely practical on-the-job training focused education.

The needs and requests for such environmental changes and university system changes had no choice but to be recognized as a serious crisis for universities. The old-fashioned research-oriented university system and scholar-provision-focused curriculum and methodology underwent some confusion, while being unable to adapt to rapid changes in the environment surrounding the universities.

3. Higher Education Policy Changes by the Ministry of Education

The crises that Korean universities face has been recognized as a task of the Korean government as well. If the chaos caused by rapid population decline is neglected and no actions are taken, then a large number of universities will face a situation where they are forced to simultaneously cease operations, and that is bound to have a great impact even at the governmental level. Furthermore, without the transition of Korea's university system, the advancement of industrial structures that are centered on knowledge and information industries, as well as changes in the industrial structures themselves will not be easy, and the economy will not emerge from its structural downturn. Of course, youth unemployment will remain unresolved.

The Korean Ministry of Education sought the 'transition to industry-academia cooperation-friendly universities' as a means to overcome these crises. This transition was designed to make most universities in the country, with the exception of a few research-centered universities, active and committed to industry-university cooperation.

To do so, several ministries and divisions of the central government including the Ministry of Education began to expand policy projects designed to support and encourage universities to transition to industry-academia cooperation-friendly universities. The most prominent of these was the 'Leaders in INdustry-university Cooperation (LINC)' project implemented in 2012 by the Ministry of Education. Those universities selected for the project were supported for five years, so it ends this year in 2016. The purpose of the above-mentioned project is to convert the existing university system to an industry-academia cooperation-friendly university. It also encouraged the establishment of a new faculty system in order to recruit industry-academia cooperation-focused professors who have years of field experience in the industry. Measuring the achievements of industry-academia cooperation and including them on faculty performance evaluations was also an important policy task. The LINC program also emphasized the use of on-the-job training curricula and the expansion of employment and business start-up related subjects. The introduction of capstone design courses that focus on problem-solving skills was also important. The Ministry of Education also stimulated universities to actively participate in industry-academia cooperation for the better student employability by including employment rate as a key indicator when evaluating universities nationwide.

Meanwhile, other government ministries and divisions besides the Ministry of Education also encouraged universities to activate industry-academia cooperation. The most prominent of these was the ‘Industry-academia Convergence Research Village Support Project’ conducted by the Small and Medium Business Administration in 2013. This project assisted industry and universities to converge spatially, by installing enterprise institutes within universities.

4. Corresponding Cases by Korean Universities: Based on Daegu University

Universities began to actively come forward to transition to industry-academia cooperation-friendly universities in order to survive the drastic changes in the environment surrounding them, and to cope with policy changes by central ministries and divisions including the Ministry of Education.

The university for which I serve, Daegu University, was no exception. After being selected for the Ministry of Education's 'Leaders in INdustry-university Cooperation' project in 2012, the following actions have so far been undertaken: the introduction of an industry-academia cooperation-focused faculty system; the establishment of new capstone design courses; the inclusion of industry-academia cooperation achievements on faculty assessment; the establishment of new industry-academia cooperation excellence faculty awards; and many others. Family enterprises, which numbered 300 in 2010, increased to 1,000 as of 2016. In addition, Daegu University was selected for various other projects such as the 'Social Entrepreneurs Promotion Project' by the Korea Social Enterprise Promotion Agency; the 'University Creative Job Center Project' by the Ministry of Employment and Labor; and the ‘Work-Study Integration System Support Project' by the Ministry of Employment and Labor. Thus, Daegu University is moving aggressively to vitalize industry-academia cooperation and to enable employment and start-ups through it.

Furthermore, Daegu University acquired the ‘Industry-academia Convergence Research Village Support Project’ from the Small and Medium Business Administration, so it operates approximately 20 Enterprise Institutes on campus since 2013, and in 2016, it also obtained the 'Start-up Leading University Promotion Project’ from the Small and Medium Business Administration and is actively supporting technology start-ups by students and local entrepreneurs.

5. In Closing

Industry-academia cooperation in a Korean setting is recognized as a very important policy task, not only for the sake of local economic revitalization, but also for the constitutional change of universities. It is the reason why the Ministry of Education conducted and expanded the 'Leaders in INdustry-university Cooperation (LINC)' to involve universities nationwide. It is a rather fortunate and positive benefit that many universities around the country actively participate in industry-academia cooperation.

I think Korea's current industry-academia cooperation has entered its second phase. It is time to upgrade the quality of industry-academia cooperation and expand its range based on the reformed university system thus far. First, universities need to vitalize industry-academia cooperation by leading industry's technological innovation in practical terms. In other words, they need to advance and upgrade one more step into industry-academia cooperation that brings about technological innovation. By transferring universities' state-of-the-art technologies to the industry and commercializing it, universities should ensure to substantially raise the technological competitiveness of industry. Second, it is necessary to expand the main agents of industry-academia cooperation within universities and industry to humanities and sociology majors and employment, not limited to just engineering departments. It is also necessary to settle the industry-academia cooperation in other disciplines such as business administration and commerce, language and literature, law and public administration, and design. Third, it is essential to connect the industry-academia cooperation between faculty and enterprises seamlessly to the employment of students. In other words, by operating industry-academia cooperation-friendly curricula, universities should nurture students into human resources that are required by industry and society. In addition, by allowing students to participate in the process of industry-academia cooperation in various ways, universities should ensure that industry-academia cooperation leads to an increase in student employment. Fourth, internationalization of industry-academia cooperation is also an important task. I believe it requires effort to expand economic territory by extending industry-academia cooperation to include foreign enterprises. In addition, I expect that it will be key in increasing students' overseas employment opportunities.