A New Challenge for Higher Education in Korea: Social Innovation

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Professor Sung-Chull Lee, executive vice president at Hanyang University in Seoul, Korea explores how forward-looking educational and research initiatives at Korean universities are impacting to improve future society.

Ever since an organisation called ‘university’ began to appear in Europe around the late 12th century, the purpose and role of this organisation has remained in its original form without any significant changes until recently.

The medieval universities as guilds, organisations of people with the same professions seeking the same purpose, were responsible for the function of research that explores professional disciplines and education to convey socially valuable knowledge, and existed only in a closed space that was physically divided. This was not much different from those of the universities of the 20th century which educate students in the physical space of a classroom and explore new knowledge in a lab within the confines of a campus.

However, the emergence and development of computers in the 20th century along with the rapid development of IT and the internet led to the third industrial revolution in the 21st century. As a result, universities are undergoing a major change amid such a trend. A system like MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses), which enables people to learn a high level of knowledge at any time wherever an internet network is accessible, has already been established. A consumer can easily access educational content provided by major universities such as Harvard University, MIT, Stanford University, and Johns Hopkins via platforms such as Coursera, Udacity, edEX, FutureLearn. In other words, the physical barrier of the campus is no longer a major constraint on the higher education environment as in the past, which has already been proven by the successful operation of the Minerva School. Hanyang University has signed an agreement with Future Learn to provide our educational expertise to the world and offered an environment where globally diverse students of the Minerva School can conduct research and study, right here in Korea.

As a result of these trends, universities around the world are no longer able to settle within the confines of a campus, and above all, are changing into an open environment for the entire world as the deepening of globalisation brings about ever more active exchanges among nations. South Korea’s higher education is also undergoing the same changes.

Korean society has traditionally placed great value on ‘education’. This is the result of the direct influence of Confucian philosophy, which emphasises self-discipline (self-realisation as an ideal human being through self-discipline), which has made many scholars explore the knowledge of their ancestors to better themselves and achieve self-completion. This desire for education served as a critical foundation for Korea, after it had been destroyed by the Korean War (1950-1953) to transform from one of the poorest countries to one of the richest in the world through rapid economic growth known as the ‘Miracle on the Han River’. For Korea, where it lacks natural resources, utilising knowledge as a natural resource was the only way for economic development, and the desire for education made it possible to develop that resource into actual talents. It is true that Korean universities have taken an easy path until recently due to this desire for education. Every year, about 70 percent of high school graduates continue on to college. Korea’s top universities have always recruited the nation’s brightest minds without needing to do much to achieve this.

However, Korean universities nowadays are actively striving to evolve as higher education is increasingly open to the world, and they are making various attempts not to be swept away by the social changes but to be a forerunner leading them. Furthermore, not only concentrating on fostering talented individuals who fulfil social needs, universities now are also nurturing young entrepreneurs who can create new industries based on innovative ideas, and are cooperating with public and private sectors acting as a research hub, in developing AI, IoT, and blockchain, the core technologies of the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Of all of the initiatives Korean universities are taking to be one of the forerunners of change, the most visible one is social innovation – not only technological innovation but also a movement to solve social issues such as the environment, energy, safety, aging, and healthcare. It has already attracted a lot of attention from the public sector: governmental bodies, global private companies, NGOs, and civil groups in many countries. The development of appropriate technology for improving the quality of life in under-developed countries/regions is a case in point. Recently, the United Nations established 17 goals (SDGs: Sustainable Development Goals) for sustainable growth of the world in regards to social innovation.

Changing the mission ahead

Until now, the reason for the existence of universities has been ‘education’ and ‘research’, but there has been a growing movement among Korean universities to think about and practice how future universities will utilise their educational and research achievements to turn
society into a better place. This is not a movement seen only in Korean universities. Ashoka U, a global network of universities to foster a campuswide culture of social innovation, was already established, and leading universities such as Johns Hopkins, Cornell, Duke, Brown, and Boston have joined the Changemaker Campus Program to participate in social innovation projects.

In 2017, the Korean government established the Presidential Office for Social Innovation directly responsible to the president and began an interest in social innovation activities (now its name has been changed to the Presidential Office for Civil Society). Accordingly, Korean universities started to think of how the outcome of their education and research can contribute to the positive change of the community, the country, and even the world to which the university belongs.

In order to realise the educational philosophy of Love in Deed and Truth, Hanyang was the first Korean university to establish the Volunteer Corps in 1994 to do a wide variety of social contribution activities. It also established the Center for Social Innovation under the Volunteer Corps in 2017, which serves as a social innovation hub in connecting schools as well as local and international communities. In addition, in 2018, Hanyang University joined the Changemaker Campus of Ashoka U for the first time in East Asia to join the world’s leading universities in order to transform the world into a better place to live.

As not only Korean universities, but also more around the world, engage in social innovation activities, we expect institutions of higher education to lead the change at the core of global change.

Professor Sung-Chull (Steve) Lee is executive vice president at Hanyang University in Seoul, Korea. Professor Lee received his MA and PhD in political science from the University of Kansas, US. He was research fellow at the Merriam Laboratory for Analytic Political Research, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (1985-89), professor of Politics and Mathematical Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, Irvine (1989-97). At Hanyang University, he was director of the Asia-Pacific Research Center (1999-2006), dean of the Graduate School of International Studies and Division of International Studies (20002012), and vice president for International Affairs (2012-14). Professor Lee teaches courses on international relations and research methods in social sciences. His research interests lie in the areas of mathematical modeling in social sciences. Professor Lee writes regularly on international affairs for newspapers and magazines. He is also frequently invited as a political analyst on TV in many countries.