Alumni bias in Korean academia exposed

New analysis reveals importance of old university networks for advancement

January 8, 2017
South Koreas football coach hugs one player
Source: Getty
Community spirit: tight alumni networks are crucial to Korean society

There is rampant alumni network favouritism in South Korean research, according to a new study that lifts the lid on the importance of connections in the nation’s academia.

The findings may add to concerns that foreign academics in South Korea, welcomed by Seoul as it attempts to make its universities more international, face additional barriers compared with locals when trying to progress through the country’s universities.

Research proposal evaluators favoured alumni from their own university when deciding who should receive funding from the National Research Foundation of Korea, the analysis found.

The study, “Impact of Alumni Connections on Peer Review Ratings and Selection Success Rate in National Research”, published in Science, Technology and Human Values, looked at close to 8,500 proposals in natural science and engineering made between 2007 and 2011.  

If scientists had no fellow alumni assessing their ideas, just 28 per cent got funding, but this success rate increased the more alumni were on the panel. When all three evaluators were from the same university as the applicant, the success rate shot up to almost four in 10.

Although gender was not the focus of the analysis, it also found that male researchers were funded at a “significantly higher rate” than women.

Alumni favouritism was not widely acknowledged as a problem in Korean academia, co-author Soogwan Doh, a researcher at the Catholic University of Daegu, told Times Higher Education. He said the paper empirically proved the problem existed “for the first time”.

The paper delves into the tight alumni networks that are crucial in Korean society. “Alumni networks are very important in the Korean business world and labour market,” it explains. “Many alumni form an active and powerful community that fosters lifelong and personal supports.”

Korean professionals quickly establish a social hierarchy by asking each other’s age and alma mater when they first meet, it adds.

“Hence, within academic circles, the discipline, age, and school information of almost all members are known,” it continues. As they network, researchers form powerful alumni networks with others in their own field, as well as even stronger relationships between senior and junior academics, the paper adds.

Concerns about the importance of alumni networks in Korean academia have been raised before. A series of interviews with foreign faculty at Yonsei University in Seoul released last year revealed that they felt they would never be able to break through a “glass ceiling” of promotion because they lacked connections from previous study at the institution. Yonsei’s management has hit back, however, citing a growing number of international faculty achieving tenure.

Dealing with alumni bias is “necessary but challenging”, this latest paper concludes. One way to do it would be to explicitly state alumni conflicts of interest – with the conflicted assessor leaving the room while others discuss a funding decision.  

david.matthews@tesglobal.com

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Assistant Recruitment - Human Resources Office

University Of Nottingham Ningbo China

Outreach Officer

Gsm London

Professorship in Geomatics

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu

Professor of European History

Newcastle University

Head of Department

University Of Chichester
See all jobs

Most Commented

men in office with feet on desk. Vintage

Three-quarters of respondents are dissatisfied with the people running their institutions

students use laptops

Researchers say students who use computers score half a grade lower than those who write notes

Canal houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

All three of England’s for-profit universities owned in Netherlands

Mitch Blunt illustration (23 March 2017)

Without more conservative perspectives in the academy, lawmakers will increasingly ignore and potentially defund social science, says Musa al-Gharbi

sitting by statue

Institutions told they have a ‘culture of excluding postgraduates’ in wake of damning study