[Robert Fouser] Looking into global rankings of Korean universities

By Robert J. Fouser
  • Published : Oct 9, 2018 - 17:07
  • Updated : Oct 9, 2018 - 17:07

The Korean media like international rankings and report on them frequently. During the boom years, Korea’s rankings in gross domestic product growth and per capita GDP made for big headlines, but things have changed now that growth has slowed.

In recent years, the standing of Korea’s universities, particularly according to the London-based Times Higher Education World University Rankings, have attracted media attention. The media use the annual results to lament about the low standing of Korean universities.

For the 2019 rankings, 1,258 universities around the world were ranked according to five categories: teaching, research, citations, industry income and international outlook. The categories are weighted with teaching, research and citations accounting for 90 percent of the rank. International outlook accounts for 7.5 percent and industry income 2.5 percent. Times Higher Education also ranks universities by reputation and uses this information to derive part of the teaching and research rankings. The rest of the rankings are composed of data from a variety of sources.

As in past years, the highest-ranking Korean university in the 2019 survey is Seoul National University at No. 63. For the first time, Sungkyunkwan University at No. 82 was the second-highest ranking Korean university; KAIST at No. 102 dropped to third place. Rounding out the top 200 for which specific rankings are given were Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) at No. 142 and Korea University at No. 198. Universities below 200 are ranked together in groups of 50 and 100. Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology and Yonsei University ranked in the 201-250 group.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings is not the only league table of world universities. The oldest ranking is the Academic Ranking of World Universities, also known as the Shanghai Ranking, which started in 2003. This ranks the top 500 universities in the world according to research output, including factors such as the number of Nobel Prize-winning alumni. QS World University Rankings were part of the Times Higher Education but began publishing independent rankings according to their own methodology in 2009. Each of these rankings have been criticized for flaws in methodology and an Anglo-American bias.

Korean universities fare poorly in the Shanghai Ranking, with none appearing in the top 100. Seoul National ranks in the 101-150 group, and Sungkyunkwan University comes in second in the 151-200 group. Hanyang University, KAIST, and Korea University fall in the 201-300 group.

Korea does better in the QS World University Rankings, where Seoul National University ranks No. 36 followed closely by KAIST at No. 40. POSTECH and Korea University are close together at No. 83 and No. 86, respectively; Sungkyunkwan University is No. 100 and Yonsei No. 107.

Of the three rankings, the research-focused Times Higher Education World University Rankings and Shanghai Ranking yield similar results, which suggest that Korean universities do not rank high in research. Korean universities do better in the QS World University Rankings, which place less emphasis on research and more weight on education-related indicators such as student-faculty ratio.

As the media took interest in the rankings, university administrators and policymakers began to take them more seriously. Since the late 2000s, universities have pressured professors to increase research output, and the government has increased research funding for universities, particularly for science and technology.

Universities are not the only place in Korea where advanced research takes place. As the economic boom gained steam in the 1970s, the government began to fund advanced research at specialized research institutes. KAIST grew from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science, which was founded by a loan from the United States Agency for International Development. Other government research institutes followed, and many are concentrated in Daejeon, where KAIST is currently located.

Korean chaebol also spend heavily on R&D. In 2015, Samsung was fifth in the world for R&D spending, sitting between Intel and Microsoft. Overall, Korea ranked fifth in the world for R&D spending and first among major economies for R&D spending as a percentage of GDP. In 2014, Korea ranked fourth in the world for patent applications and patents granted, and first in patent applications for per capita GDP and per capita.

Korea is clearly a research powerhouse despite the weakness of its universities. This is like Japan and Germany where universities are weak compared to the size of the economy, technological prowess, and overall spending on R&D. In thinking about Korean universities, the right question to ask is how they can contribute to society and add to what Korea already does well.

Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at robertjfouser@gmail.com. -- Ed.