Nigel Thrift. Over the last week, I have been part of a U.K. higher-education delegation to South Korea, visiting universities like Seoul National University and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (Kaist) and meeting senior representatives from many other South Korean universities. South Korean universities are pushing hard to make an even bigger impact in the world and, at least to judge by rankings, confidence levels and the state of their campuses, they are clearly succeeding. The South Korean higher-education system is in overdrive although it still has some problems, particularly a fall in tuition fee income, driven by electoral politics and a substantial demographic downturn which will have rapid impacts on the numbers of domestic students arriving at university.
Whatever the case, South Korean higher education is internationalizing rapidly. That internationalization takes two forms. First, there is the internationalization of students. With so many students choosing to pursue higher education, South Korea has always sent many of its students overseas, most notably to the United States. South Korea is the third largest source country for international students. But it is now determinedly pushing for more foreign students to come to South Korea. The British students that I spoke to who had made the journey all spoke positively.
Second, there is the internationalization of research which is being driven by impressively large amounts of government financing. South Korea is making a determined push to increase its research profile. Through the Ministry of Knowledge Economy, which tends to support applied research, and the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology, which tends to back more basic research, considerable money for research is on offer, some of which can be shared or built on by foreign partners. In particular, there is currently a big push into basic research via the so-called Institute for Basic Science located in Daejeon whose avowed intent is to rival institutions like MPG in Germany and RIKEN in Japan. There is also a “world class university” project that finances South Korean universities to invite world-renowned academics.
So far as international reach is concerned, the South Korean higher-education system has been dominated by links with U.S. universities and, to a lesser extent, Germany, but the times are changing and South Korean universities are seeking more diversity of influence. It was heartwarming to get a sense of how keen South Korean academics were to cooperate more widely, as evidenced by a simultaneous cell-cycle symposium taking place in South Korea on mitosis which included luminaries like Tim Hunt and Kim Nasmyth.
Add to all this, the pre-eminence of South Korean firms like Samsung and LG that work closely with South Korean higher education through their research institutes and it is possible to see a heady brew emerging which can fuel continuing success. Already, the Nature Publishing Index shows the way in which South Korean universities are rising in science. There is clearly more to come.