Why Do Korean Universities Lag Behind Hong Kong’s? – And then some of my reasons

Why Do Korean Universities Lag Behind Hong Kong’s?

The University of Hong Kong was named the best university in Asia for the second straight year in a study by the Chosun Ilbo and Quacquarelli Symonds of 448 universities in 11 Asian countries. Hong Kong University of Science and Technology came second and Chinese University of Hong Kong fourth.

But in Korea, Seoul National University was the only one to make it into the top 10, ranking in sixth place. Hong Kong has a population of 7 million, a mere seventh of Korea’s, but when it comes to the competitiveness of universities, Hong Kong does far better than Korea.

The government of Hong Kong provides financial support to eight universities through a funding committee affiliated with the education ministry. The size of the support depends strictly on performance, which prompts universities to compete to attract the best faculty and students and to improve the quality of their education and research. At the University of Hong Kong, 56 percent of faculty and 31 percent of students are foreigners from 80 countries. Using English as the preferred language of education, the university manages to draw the best academics in each field. At its engineering faculty, 96 percent rank among the top one percentile group in the ISI (Information Sciences Institute) ranking of most cited research papers.

First, I have to question how these universities are ranked. I’ve yet to see anything about data collection and analysis, but I’m weary of any of these rankings.

This is a good, surface-level analysis, but it ignores some of the reasons why Hong Kong universities can attract these high-performing faculty.

1. HK Uni’s pay for these folks. Real salaries (with benefits) are around double of those in Korea.

2. HK is simply more foreigner-friendly (primarily European/North American) than Korea. Heck, it was a British protectorate for a 100 years and this is obvious when visiting the city.

3. HK Uni’s offer research release time. Translation, not as much teaching leaves time for more research.

4. Lastly, HK Uni’s attract mid-/end-of-career professors who are looking for new opportunities (travel, research, weather, etc.) and the high salaries mentioned in #1 make this an easier transition. Can you imagine one of these professors coming to Seoul with a middle/high school aged kid and a spouse for $80,000/yr (humanities)? Before you say, that’s not too bad, think about the high cost of housing, of shopping (clothes and food), and..oh yeah… $25,000/yr for international school tuition and fees. Forget about it. Not going to happen.

There are also some things that I’m not sure about. They may be different and they may not be.

1. Korean universities, while ruled from above (hierarchical), are run like fiefdoms. There is very little central planning focused on standardizing student/faculty experiences: classroom equipment, technology infrastructure, and faculty/staff training (for a few examples). This not only effects student experiences (and thus evaluations), but also faculty productivity. This lack of standardization results in extra planning time and loss of opportunities to streamline their teaching and class management. This also tends to result in over-lapping documentation requirements due to the fractured nature of the organizations.

2. Heavier teaching loads result in less time for good quality research. This leads to more publications in lower-ranked journals. It’s easier and faster to write 2 mediocre articles and publish in non-SSCI journals than it is to write 1 high-quality article and publish in an SSCI journal. This is a general problem throughout academia, but it seems particularly problematic here, especially considering most schools have tenure systems that actually take 10 years. That means that pre-tenure professors are struggling to publish about 2-4 articles/yr (depending on school) for nearly 10 years. Talk about burn out. Unless they can be assured of meeting their minimums, they have a hard time shooting for SSCI pubs that can take 2 years to actually get published. By then, they are looking for a new job 🙁

I’m not really down on Korean universities, particularly the top-tier ones. They are doing quite well in the science and technology areas. They do seem to be  able to both staff from within and recruit from abroad. As with most large organizations, universities must continuously strive to both take care of their existing customers (students) and innovate to attract new customers and employees. If they ignore one group, it will hurt both the satisfaction of existing and the recruitment of new faculty and students.  This is what, in the long run, will help universities improve and even do well in these stupid popularity contests.

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