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No more vested rights for state college professors

2012/04/07 | 190 views |  | Permalink | Source

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Lee Ju-ho, third from right, talks during a meeting with presidents of state and public universities in this file photo. Some state universities are protesting the government's education reforms. / Korea Times

By Na Jeong-ju

Choi Chin-myung, a professor of a state-run college in Busan, recently joined a drive initiated by his colleagues to oust Minister of Education, Science and Technology Lee Ju-ho.

The association of professors at state universities, which has more than 16,000 members, has demanded the resignation of the minister, saying his push for college restructuring is biased and unfair.

"After studying more than 10 years in the United States, I was able to become a professor of this school. It was a great honor for me to teach students at a state university. My friends at private schools were envious of me", Choi said.

"However, things have changed since Lee introduced merit-based payment programs for professors. We are now being driven into a fierce competition to keep our teaching jobs".

Choi said he first supported Lee's reform, but turned his back on him after realizing that it will ultimately threaten his job status and deteriorate working conditions.

Being a faculty member of a state college had long been regarded here as having an "iron rice container" because of secure job status, high salaries and less competitive working environment than in private schools.

However, like Choi, many state college professors are gripped by a sense of crisis as the education ministry is pushing for restructuring to enhance the global competitiveness of local schools.

Last week, the professors' association officially launched a campaign to force the minister out. It urged President Lee Myung-bak to dismiss him, citing the result of a survey of 9,470 professors at state universities, in which 93 percent said the minister should step down.

"The survey is virtually a vote of no confidence in Minister Lee", Lee Byung-woon, the association's chairman, said in a press conference. "We will submit petitions to Cheong Wa Dae as well as the National Assembly to stop Lee's reform programs and have him sacked immediately".

Resisting change

At the center of the controversy are the ministry's plans to introduce a merit-based wage system for professors and to abolish the direct election system for presidents of state-run colleges. The professors also denounced the minister for introducing competition-oriented programs for state-run schools, ignoring the unique roles they have played in the country's education.

"We propose the creation of an emergency committee including representatives of state-run schools to map out long-term plans for the future of the country's universities", the chairman said. "State-run schools are not profit-oriented and each school has its own function. However, the government is ignoring this fact".

The "revolt" by professors reflected concerns among state-run schools that the government was tightening its grip on them, using state subsidies. However, their move was widely seen as an attempt to keep their own vested interests. Only a couple of media outlets wrote stories on their demands.

The restructuring of state-run schools is the centerpiece of Minister Lee's educational reform. He also plans to shut down poorly-managed universities and kick out corrupt managers.

Lee has said the government's ongoing efforts to restructure colleges are not temporary, but part of a long-term strategy aimed at enhancing the competitiveness of local universities.

"There is a misunderstanding among some people that our reform plan will be short-lived. But this is not the case", Lee said during a meeting with the presidents of 38 state universities late last year.

"We predict that, in 12 years, student enrollments at colleges will decrease by 40 percent from the current levels. The future is dark if we don't change now".

It appears that the professors are resisting change.

Last year, the ministry picked five "non-viable" state-run universities that would face rigorous restructuring and financial restrictions. The measure came a few weeks after it decided not to give state subsidies to 43 private colleges this year. The blacklisted schools claimed that the methods and standards the government adopted to rate schools were biased, but the ministry dismissed their allegations.

Direct voting of presidents

The ministry also sees the direct election system for presidents at state colleges as hampering their development and splitting faculty members.

Under the system, which has been in place since 1991, state-run schools have elected presidents through direct voting by professors and school staff. However, there have been reports of bribery scandals involving candidates and factional conflicts ahead of elections.

Last year, the ministry vetoed Pusan National University's plan to appoint a professor as its new president. The professor, surnamed Chung, was elected to the post in June last year in a direct vote by faculty members, but was later convicted of an Election Law violation and fined 4 million won.

The ministry wants to enhance transparency in school administration and root out corruption by scrapping the direct election system for presidents. However, most professors oppose the plan, saying it may increase the government's intervention in school affairs. Some university presidents expressed resentment over what they called the ministry's "radical and biased" school policy.

Despite the protest, the ministry's drive to reform the way university presidents are chosen is gaining momentum.

According to the ministry, a total of 32 of 38 state universities nationwide have decided to abolish the direct election system and, instead, set up their own evaluation committee to choose a president from among applicants.

The ministry vowed to press ahead with the college restructuring.

"The government has often been criticized for lax oversight of state-run schools. We are paying attention to the calls that the government's reform should begin with efforts to improve the efficiency of state-run colleges and strengthen monitoring of their operations before reforming the private sector", a ministry spokesman said.

"One of the administration's key policy goals is to enhance the overall competitiveness of the country's education to meet the needs of parents and students. That's why we are concentrating on restructuring state colleges".

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