POSTECH head: a university’s ultimate mission is to create value for society

Universities in the US, South Korea and elsewhere must contribute to the advancement of the knowledge-based industries of the 21st century, says Doh-Yeon Kim

March 9, 2017
High tech manufacturing
Source: iStock

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century was a critical inflection point in human history. As well as the changes it brought about to the human basics of food and clothing, a revolution also occurred in people’s ways of living and working, accompanied by rapid urban development.

With the advent of machines and mass production, labourers flocked to cities in droves. The newly formed communities and markets turned cities into commercial and financial hubs, which, in turn, attracted more people. Consequent problems such as air and water pollution and build-up of waste were gradually solved through technological development, and cities continued to grow. In the case of the UK, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, the population of London was less than 1 million in 1800. Half a century later, it had more than doubled to 2.5 million, and currently stands at more than 8.5 million.

But not all cities continue to prosper. Their fate is naturally related to their industrial competence. Major metropolitan areas in the US Great Lakes and Midwest regions, such as Detroit and Pittsburgh, were the heartland of American manufacturing up until the 1970s. However, the rush of globalisation in the latter half of the 20th century brought about the waning of these industries. The population of the region has declined, and the area has become known as the Rust Belt. The economic pain of voters in these areas has been widely cited as one of the major reasons for the election of Donald Trump as US president last year.

Nonetheless, in the past couple of decades, some Rust Belt cities have bounced back with renewed vigour. A convergence of IT and traditional manufacturing industry, in addition to the rise of high-value service sectors, is re-elevating these cities’ industrial viability.

Yet the focal point of this revival is concentrated within the region’s universities. In fact, of the nine US Midwestern metropolitan areas whose per capita gross domestic product is above the national average, six have major research universities; these include Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, as well as Madison and Milwaukee, both of which have University of Wisconsin campuses. These institutions’ research and power to attract young people have served as a wellspring of new value for knowledge-based industries, and local businesses have benefited and prospered through close collaboration with the universities, facilitated by local and central government.

Turning to South Korea, Ulsan and Pohang are two of the major industrial cities that have propelled the nation’s miraculous economic development. Yet, like other industrial cities in the nation, their steel, shipping and automobile industries are now experiencing a downturn. To overcome the stagnation, the two cities’ governments, local chambers of commerce and institutions such as the University of Ulsan, Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (Unist) and, in Pohang, Handong Global University and the Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH), have come together to launch what we call the “Univer+City” forum. This collaborative initiative pursues the mutual prosperity and development of the universities and their cities.

Since the forum’s second meeting last October, the city of Gyeongju – the capital of the ancient kingdom of Shilla, located between Pohang and Ulsan – has also joined the initiative. Also known as the Haeorum (Sunrise) Alliance, these cities and universities in the south-east region of South Korea are broadening their efforts to develop concrete plans for stronger collaboration. In this way, we hope that our region will become not South Korea’s Rust Belt but rather its “Sunrise Belt”.

An indisputable fact is that universities now play a greater role than ever in driving the economic prosperity of their communities. And the ultimate mission of a university in this new era is to create value for society, on the foundation of its teaching and research excellence. Universities must contribute to the advancement of the knowledge-based industries of the 21st century.

Doh-Yeon Kim is president of the Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH), in Pohang, South Korea. He will be giving one of the keynote addresses at Times Higher Education’s Asia Universities Summit, to be held at the University of Ulsan, South Korea, between 14 and 16 March.

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