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Korea University looks to nurture ‘pioneering intellectuals’ who can shape the 21st century

Interview - June 15, 2016

As South Korea looks to taking a leading role in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Prof. Jaeho Yeom, President of the prestigious Korea University, reveals his vision for a revolution in tertiary education to ensure that his institution nurtures creative, globalized leaders that are suited to the needs and demands of the future economy



In a lecture last October, you said you believe that “the beginning of the 21st century is a transitional period in the history of human civilization.” In South Korea, we observe that the country is at something of a crossroads between the economic model that helped bring about the “Miracle of the Han River”, and the future “Creative Economy” that aims to spearhead the Fourth Industrial Revolution. How do you perceive the role of Korea’s universities in enabling this transition into a “Creative Economy”?

University plays a key role in the development of human resources. It is a bridge between the real world and the preparation world. During the 20th century, university played a significant role in producing very talented, well-educated human resources. Their skills were suited to the economic model of the 20th century, when we were in the ‘first follower’ stage and attempting to catch up with the industrial leaders. We produced a lot of specialists and they played very important roles in the well-organized systems of the manufacturing sectors.

In the 21st century, we are moving away from the old model and into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. For this, we need knowledge-based industries. Previously, our graduates were very good at adapting to the big companies and the main industries. However, the employment opportunities now increasingly lie with venture companies and SMEs.

I push my students to be more innovative and pioneering. Korean students are very hard working. For example, to earn a place at a “SKY” university (Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University), students sleep less than five hours a day because they have so much to memorize.

Korean students rank first in the international PISA test, which focuses on math, science and reading at the age of 15. Finnish students rank alongside Korean students, but their method of learning is quite different. We push our students to learn by rote memorization and to work very hard. But in Finland, students are encouraged to think of learning as fun.

I get the impression that Korean students learn because they are forced to. Learning is a labor for them. In Finland, students learn out of curiosity. We have to ask ourselves in the 21st century, which is the better education style? I would have to say that the Finnish style is better because it is more holistic. Information is all around us and we have to access it as best we can. For example, one of my colleagues mentioned that if we collect all of the knowledge we accumulate during our four years at university, it would amount to just 2 megabytes.

Well, Wikipedia alone stores more than 40 gigabytes. We have to develop creative ideas and a different way of thinking. We need to change our whole education system, including the learning and teaching methods. Project-based learning is very important for the 21st century. That is our vision.


One of the ways the government has tried to ensure university graduates are suited to the demands of the modern economy is through its flagship education policies, PRIME and CORE. What is your perspective on the effectiveness of PRIME and CORE in ensuring graduates are prepared for the jobs of the future?

This is an attempt at education innovation by the government, but it is not enough.

Also, the government should not be the only ones driving innovation. I would rather propose that faculty members change their mindset and that students really think deeply about where they will be in 20 years or 30 years. For example, many young Korean people think that they will get a job with a major conglomerate and stay there for their whole career. That is no longer the case.

In the 21st century there will be more room for freelancers, writers and creative designers. Students should not base their vision on the traditional manufacturing sector. I would propose it is better to think differently and creatively, rather than simply remembering everything that was said in a lecture. PRIME and CORE are effective policies, but they are not enough.


Korea University forms part of the prestigious SKY Trio that has for many years provided graduates who have had high flying careers in government and the major conglomerates. What is your assessment of the relevance of SKY universities in the 21st century? Do you believe these institutions still hold the same the same prestige and influence that they had in previous decades?

The prestige will remain. We still enjoy the same reputation and ranking today as we did 50 years ago. Lots of changes have taken place in that time, but the reputation is the same.

My vision is a little bit different. I think that reputation alone is not enough. Simply enjoying the prestige of graduating from Korea University is not good for our students. That is one of the reasons why I want to change my university in a very aggressive manner.

For example, we don’t need to log the attendance of every student in every class. Also, we don’t need such strict surveillance in exams. We need freedom.

We also need a flexible semester system. In Korea, 16 weeks is a regular semester. I would suggest that we can just reduce that by half. For example, six hours a week over eight weeks will be enough. Altogether that is 48 hours. If we reduce the length of each semester, our students and professors can travel around the world and meet their international peers and participate in internship programs.

My job is to provide freedom. I propose a lot of flexibility and I also want to see greater use of the ‘flipped-class’ style. Traditionally, a professor gives the lecture and then students solve problems at home and submit their projects for assessment. But these days, the online lecture is well developed. Using the flipped-class method, students can watch the lecture from home and then in class they participate in the discussion and solve the problem with the help of their professor and their peers.

Problem solving and discussion may be the major classroom style in the 21st century rather than a lecture. It is no longer enough to listen, read and follow instructions; you need to engage with your peers to solve problems. I want to transform my university in this way. It is a new innovation. With these kinds of transformations, we can retain our prestige in the 21st century. A lot of relatively new universities in places such as Hong Kong and Singapore are already forging ahead with these methods and we cannot be left behind.


Another of the major changes you have introduced is to remove academic scholarships and increase financial aid for students from low-income families. What was the reasoning behind this move?

Korea was an extremely poor country 50 years ago. In order to provide incentives for people to aspire to a good education, we traditionally rewarded good grades with financial scholarships. However, today we are much more prosperous. Over the last 50 years, the world economy has grown 6.6 times whereas the Korean economy has grown 400 times in the same period.

It is just unbelievable. When I was young, we were very poor. Sometimes we could not even afford food. Today we are a completely different country, but we still provide scholarships in the same way. As I said before, rote memorization, especially in the college years, is not enough. We need more creative ideas and analytic abilities.

As a result, we have decided to change the system into a program-based scholarship. For example, we introduced a scholarship for an intensive Chinese language program. Students study for 4 weeks here at Korea University and then spend four weeks in Beijing or Shanghai. They take classes for six hours every day.

When they start they know very little Chinese, but after eight weeks they speak fluently without text. It is amazing. It is possible because they’re very talented and hard working. I just provide airfare, tuition and accommodation. The recipients of this scholarship are a select group of very highly motivated students.

This year we selected 100 students and we are sampling them regardless of their majors. The only exception is that Chinese language and literature students cannot apply.

This year we are also going to send the 30 students to Costa Rica to learn Spanish. Next year, we will send students to Japan and Russia.

Also, although Korea is a now a prosperous country, we still have wealth disparities and students from very poor families. In such cases, scholarships that cover tuition fees are not enough. They need to meet their living expenses, so they get part-time jobs in convenience stores or similar places. We provide them with a recommendation and additional financial aid. So, for example, if they work 10 hours per week, we provide them with an additional US$400.

Simply providing financial scholarships for good grades is inadequate these days.


Korea University was ranked 104th in the world and 19th in Asia in the most recent QS University Rankings. As the country looks to take the lead in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, how do you asses your university’s global competitiveness in R&D and innovation, particularly in areas that have been identified as new growth engines of the economy such as IoT, Big Data and biotechnology?

Very good question. Revenue-wise, the total amount of money from undergraduate tuition fees amounts to only half of our R&D fund. Korea is ranked number 1 globally in terms of R&D spending per capita. We are ranked number six in terms of total R&D spending, surpassing the UK four years ago.

Korea University started a little late in terms of science and technology. Our engineering school celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. All of our engineering departments were included in the QS evaluation you mentioned. We are very strong in R&D and we are very strong in science and technology. Take, for example, biomedicine. We have three hospitals right next to our campus. We have two university hospitals that were selected by the Ministry of Health and Welfare as top 10 research centers.

We are one of the leaders in biomedical research thanks to our Medical Applied R&D Global Initiative Center (KU-MAGIC), which will enable us to commercialize our work. I borrowed this model from Stanford and Singapore. The Singapore government has designated almost US$3 billion for 10 years for biomedicine research, which should help them achieve a 28% growth rate in the sector annually. The return on investment is marvelous and they have recruited 50 of the world’s best researchers.

KU-MAGIC opened last September and it will allow us to fundraise for big R&D projects. Major Korean companies such as Samsung, SK and LG are moving into biomedicine in the 21st century and this creates major opportunities. We can be the leader.

Last year, South Korea had a MERS outbreak. The leader of the response team was our university hospital’s professor. He also developed a vaccine last year in joint research with SK Chemicals.


Korea University has signed bilateral agreements with a vast network of universities worldwide, including in Japan, on which we have previously published an educational report, and the US, where we will be publishing our work on Korea. Where do you see scope for future collaboration with American universities or private companies, particularly in terms of R&D?

American universities are the front-runners in global education. They’ve already achieved marvelous success and recruited excellent foreign students. Actually, they took advantage of the most talented Korean students. For example, around 70% or 80% of our faculty members attained a PhD from the United States, including me. They have a very good relationship with American laboratories and universities. We started that kind of global program 12 years ago.

We are number one in Korea for summer programs. Each summer we bring around 60 university professors from Stanford, Yale, UCLA and Oxford University. They teach their own course during the summer for a six-week program. We offer around 200 different courses. Foreign students are coming to take the courses and get recognition from their home institutions.

We are very successful. This year we will have our 2,000 students. Not only are we number one in Korea, we are also very strong in worldwide summer programs. I have a friend from Stanford University who has come for eight consecutive years with his family. His young children are growing up with the Korean experience each summer.

We also have very good exchange programs. We are sending a lot of students to the outside world. At the moment, 1,400 students are going abroad each year. Language students must spend at least one semester abroad in a country where their language of study is a native language. Spanish language department students should go to Latin America or Spain. The French students should go to Quebec or France, and so on.

In that case, we provide full scholarships for exchange programs. It is very successful. We have become very globalized. In 2003 when we started the first global project, our courses offered in the English language amounted to 11% of the total courses offered. Since 2003, incoming faculty member should teach only in English. It is mandatory. Now we are number one in Korea. 40% of courses are taught in English. We need to be more globalized

We also need to expand our horizons. Last year we formed an East Asia-Northern Europe university consortium. I recently visited several of the universities in Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg, and Belgium. I met the president or vice-president and we developed closer ties such as committing to joint labs, exchanges, and joint degree programs. We also invited two more universities to join from China and Japan.

Another point is that Korean universities have traditionally recruited students from elsewhere in Asia. I have turned my eyes towards the Latin American countries. We are going to recruit at least 200 undergraduate and 300 graduate students from Latin America. Traditionally these countries have been very divided between rich and poor. The wealthy people usually send their children to study in the USA and then they return to their homeland to rule the country. But increasingly, Latin American governments are looking to send their very smart students from poor families to foreign countries for further study. For example, the Ecuadorian Education Minister made a request to us, and they have sent around 170 students here on government-sponsored scholarships. They want to increase this from 170 to 5,000. They are very eager to learn from the Korean experience of rapid economic development.

I will make my second trip to Latin America in July 2016, when I will visit Costa Rica, Mexico and Cuba.

Next year I will visit Argentina, Brazil and Chile. I have my own plan to recruit students.

I found it interesting that in Columbia, I could see more Kia cars than Toyota. 70% of the home appliances and electronics there are made by Samsung or LG. Also, LG is starting to build new factories in Brazil. There are around 600 million people in Latin America. After China, the world economy is moving towards Latin America, I believe. In 20 or 30 years, Latin American countries will be major economic powers. That is the reason I send my students to Costa Rica to learn Spanish.


This is one of many ways in which your university is acting as a pioneer in the field of education. How would you sum up your vision for Korea University and its role in helping to shape the future of the nation?

My university started in 1905. Just five years later, we were colonized by the Japanese. Previously we were a kingdom—the Joseon Dynasty—based on Confucian scholarship. The rulers were philosophers and scholars and they developed a merit-based bureaucracy over 500 years.

The problem at the turn 20th century was our inability to adapt to modernization and a changing world. It was only in 1905 that the king finally noticed that we needed to broaden our education system, and that is when KU was founded. We changed our society and our country through education.

In the 21st century we need to see more change and renewal. Korea University needs to be the flagship innovator of Korean society. We must change our system in a revolutionary way. Korea University is trying to change the education method and the outlook of our students and our faculty professors. We need a university that is suited to the 21st century.

We don’t need to pour our ideas into our students. On the contrary, we need to pull out the students’ talents. Education comes from the word “educe”. Educe means “pulling out” rather than “infuse”. Education should be about pulling out talent and making it better.

My vision is not just for the university but for our society. We cannot achieve a Creative Economy if we do change our approach to study. Because our students are very smart and well prepared, if we can successfully change the style of learning, they can be the leaders of the 21st century Creative Economy.