An Asian university’s decision to hand control of curriculum design to major employers has sparked debate about how higher education institutions can ensure that their students graduate with the skills needed by industry.
Incheon National University in South Korea is handing significant control of a new college to more than 50 companies, which will decide most of its curricula and research topics, and select which lecturers will teach the courses. Samsung and Panasonic are among the firms mooted for participation in the venture.
Employers that commit to work with Incheon’s Matrix College would “not be required to contribute a single dollar”, Dong-Sung Cho, the university’s president, told Times Higher Education.
“The university is giving up its rights to employers, but it should be happy to do this,” he said, adding that Incheon and other universities “should be honoured to be the servants of industry”.
“Employers are, after all, our masters as they are the ones who take graduates from us, who are our greatest products,” he added.
Professor Cho, who has led Incheon since July 2016, said that he had surrendered control of Matrix to industry because more equitable industry-academia partnerships did not produce the results desired by employers.
“If there is even one professor sitting on a panel with 10 industry heads, they will kill all the ideas from industry,” said Professor Cho. “A single drop of black ink in a glass of water pollutes the water entirely,” he continued, adding that he had “made sure there will be no intervention by professors when running our programmes” and that “industry people will choose professors” to work with.
At Matrix College, which takes about 400 of Incheon’s 14,000-strong student body, students will graduate by taking half their credits from conventional academic courses and half from courses designed by companies that they wish to apply to join on graduation.
Professor Cho argued that business leaders would be interested in the initiative because universities had strengths that costly in-house research and development teams did not.
“The head of Samsung’s biology division told me there are things that universities can do better than his team – for instance, they have better biology but do not have expertise in humanities or creating [graduates] with integrity,” he said.
The college’s policy on curriculum design is likely to be unmatched in mainstream universities, despite growing engagement with employers on course design.
However, industry involvement at Matrix College will come at the detriment of learning, warned Jisun Jung, assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Hong Kong.
“It sounds ideal, but it is not actually easy to identify industrial needs or job competencies except in a few fields like information technology,” said Dr Jung. “Serving companies” in this way might also not benefit graduates in the long term given the shifting nature of the employment landscape, she added.
“Does industry really teach better transferable competencies that a future labour market will need, such as creativity and flexibility?” asked Dr Jung, who said that Korean universities still needed to consider “careful design and [the] long-term approach” of curricula despite recent criticisms that courses are outdated or too theory-based.
“Unfortunately, many cases of current curriculum collaboration between industry and university were created with short-term vision to improve the employment rate of local universities in Korea,” said Dr Jung, adding that, as in the UK, graduate employment rates had become one of the “most important university evaluation criteria”.
However, other Asian countries, such as China, could learn from elements of Incheon’s project because curricula are still highly centralised, argued Lili Yang, a PhD researcher at UCL’s Centre for Global Higher Education.
“In most cases, universities’ programmes and their curricula are decided by the Chinese central government. Apart from a few elite universities, there exists little space for universities to decide [on curricula],” said Ms Yang. “If a university would like to open a new programme only according to the industry’s expectation, then it would be difficult for the university to obtain an official permit from the government.”