Talking leadership 23: Oh Se-jung on the burden of being the best

The president of Seoul National University discusses the existential crisis facing higher education in South Korea

April 26, 2022
Oh Se-jung, Seoul National University
Source: Seoul National University
Oh Se-jung, Seoul National University

Oh Se-jung is a man with a heavy burden. Although he leads South Korea’s most prestigious university, an institution largely cushioned from the existential crisis threatening to engulf much of the country’s higher education sector, he is deeply worried about the future of the nation’s other institutions.

“Of course we enjoy recognition and prestige, but also a heavier expectation and sense of responsibility are laid upon us,” the president of Seoul National University (SNU) tells Times Higher Education in the latest in our Talking Leadership series.

A report published late last year predicted that nearly half of South Korea’s 385 universities could close in the next quarter-century. Oh believes that the situation could be even more dire. Based on projections of student cohorts, “in 20 years from now, only about 40 universities the size of SNU are necessary”, he says.

Some institutions are already failing to admit enough students to continue to be viable, and it’s a particular problem for certain areas of the country, he says. The capital, Seoul, and its surrounding region are home to more than 50 per cent of the population, and an even higher percentage of the younger generation. It is the rural universities that cannot attract enough students, “so they may collapse in a few years”, Oh adds.

He worries about the knock-on effect of closures on local economies and communities: “If the university is closed, the local community is also at risk. In the end, it really breaks down the whole ecosystem of the universities and also the national economy. So it’s a big problem.”

Oh thinks the solution lies in strengthening rural universities so that they attract students and fortify local economies. “If they become stronger in research capability, they can create jobs by making start-ups and collaborating with local industries,” he says.

SNU is working to improve these universities by providing exchange programmes that allow their students to spend a semester or a year at SNU. During Covid, they were forced online, but the institution hopes to return to in-person exchanges soon.

The other solution, Oh says, is to emphasise lifelong learning. However, this will require a shift, he explains, because only 20 years ago universities were riding the wave of an abundance of young students and so did not invest in continuing education. The government also spends less on lifelong learning than other developed countries, he says. “We have to change the attitude of the government as well as the universities.”

Next month, South Korea will have a new government; the conservative People Power Party candidate Yoon Suk-yeol, who won by a hair’s breadth, will take office. Oh hopes the government will recognise that strengthening rural universities will help the economy, although he says he is unsure of the new president’s stance because higher education was not a policy issue during the election campaign.

The weakening of other universities in South Korea presents a unique problem for Oh and SNU. Unlike in the US, for instance, where many prestigious universities specialise in certain subjects, SNU has to spread its net wide.

“If we leave out one academic field, that field cannot really survive in our country,” Oh says.

When he was a dean at SNU more than a decade ago, Oh invited about 20 professors from other countries to assess the university, and a common comment was that it was spread too thin, considering the size of departments. The answer, according to Oh, again lies in the strengthening of other universities – “then we can share our burden with them”.

Publishing bias

Another reason Oh wants all Korean universities to up their game is to combat bias in the publishing world. He spent several years in the US early in his career, and while at Stanford University he had no problem submitting papers to top journals. When he returned to South Korea and submitted what he thought was his best work so far, the paper was rejected with a comment suggesting that he read some of the fundamental research in his subject.

“I had a feeling that this is really biased. I didn’t have that kind of comment when I was in the States. When I submitted a paper, nobody said you have to read all these classics,” he says.

Although the incident took place 40 years ago, when South Korea’s research capability was less advanced, publishing bias is still a concern for Oh: “To be really competitive in the world market, all our institutions should become better. Otherwise, there will be prejudice against you.”

Oh studied at SNU himself, and he says he never wanted to do anything other than become an academic. After completing a PhD at Stanford and spending three years working in research labs in the US, he returned to SNU as a professor and taught for more than 30 years.

“I thought quite a lot about whether I should stay in the States or go back to Korea. And what I realised was that if I stayed in the United States, I would live a comfortable life but I would just be one of them. But if I came back to Korea at the time, I could change the Korean academic society,” he says.

Combating polarisation

One way he hopes to improve his country is by combating what he sees as a creeping polarisation.

“Many beliefs are not based on objective facts,” he says. “[People] tend to listen to what they like only.”

SNU’s offering is a newly minted Institute for Future Strategy – a multidisciplinary thinktank that will provide the public, and the government, with objective data and facts. The institute has five research themes, one of which is polarisation and the crisis in democracy.

Although South Korea is democratic, and the recent general election saw an extremely high turnout, Oh says “people tend to go extreme”.

His faculty experience this problem with their students, and Oh sees it in even his own social circle.

“When I talk to my friends, they are really polarised. They argue [with] each other. They cannot come to a consensus,” he says. “We have to try to understand the reasons and costs and try to see what we can do to lessen this problem.”

The new institute will also research the low birth rate and ageing population and the knock-on effect this has on society, as well as pandemics, and the future of science and technology. Another focus will be the changing world order.

Because of its geographical location, South Korea is “at the forefront of conflicts between the United States and Russia or China,” Oh says. “We are worried about the China and US conflict. Korea is really in the middle, and so we have to worry about that and what to expect.”

South Korea’s biggest trading partner is China, but it is aligned with the US militarily, he explains.

“China doesn’t like what we do with the United States,” he says, adding that five years ago China stopped showing Korean films as an expression of dissatisfaction with South Korea.

On the topic of Korean cultural exports, what does Oh think about the brutally violent representation of his country portrayed in Netflix’s global hit Squid Game?

“I feel that it shows some aspects of our society, Korean society, which is really too competitive in every aspect,” he says.

Oh believes that the country should be more collaborative instead: “We have to give second chances to many more people.” His work at SNU, and in strengthening the wider South Korean higher education system, might just do that.

Quick facts

Born: Seoul, 1953

Academic qualifications: BSc in physics from Seoul National University; PhD in physics from Stanford University

Lives with: His wife; he has one daughter

Academic hero: German physicist Werner Heisenberg.

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

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