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[Opinion] The Remarkable Progress of HKUST

Posted December. 19, 2008 03:40,   


Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) is a benchmark for many universities around the world because it has joined the ranks of the top schools in only 17 years after its establishment. In the mid-1980s, Hong Kong decided to set up a university focused on applied science, paying attention to the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, or better known as KAIST. Set up in 1971, KAIST became one of Korea’s most outstanding science and technology universities. Using KAIST as its role model, HKUST was opened in 1991.

Though it learned from KAIST, HKUST is now performing better. The Hong Kong school was ranked 39th in this year’s World University Rankings by the Times of London, while KAIST was ranked 96th. HKUST receives enormous financial support from the Hong Kong government but this is not the only factor that turned it into a world-class institution. Unlike Korean universities, which are trying to build barriers between disciplines, HKUST followed the global trend of tearing down barriers. It also offered education that industry needed, and its vision, leadership and strong financial support made it competitive.

KAIST President Seo Nam-pyo said, “To become a world-class university, KAIST must grow bigger and raise the number of undergraduates from 700 to 1,000. But if I request expansion to education officials, they say they cannot do a favor only for KAIST.” KAIST is wasting time and energy fighting government regulations and arguments for egalitarian education instead of competing with its global peers.

Though Seoul National University, one of Korea’s most prestigious universities, also has strong potential to become a world-class institution, many other national universities oppose the school’s incorporation that would offer it more autonomy. They say that if Seoul National is incorporated, the university will become better but other national universities will be marginalized.

An opposition party lawmaker said in the audit of Seoul National in October, “Seoul National University wants to be incorporated but have you thought about the pain that other universities might suffer?” Having a few world-class universities in Korea will stimulate other universities and sharpen their competitiveness as well. The government must focus on and offer financial assistance to universities with potential. Universities should not try to protect themselves by claiming to have different conditions from world-renowned universities such as Harvard. The case of HKUST illustrates that a university can become world-class over a short period time, if there is a will.

Editorial Writer Hong Chan-sik (chansik@donga.com)