This week the World Education Forum convenes in Incheon, South Korea. Drawing leaders from UNESCO member states and heads of international organizations and NGOs, the 4-day gathering will examine global education priorities and discuss a framework for action and implementation of shared goals and targets.
The Forum, which last met in Dakar in 2000, will explore five major themes: equity, inclusion, quality education and lifelong learning, and also set out an agenda on global citizenship education—how to cultivate in youth the attitudes, values and skills needed in today’s world.
As the Forum approaches, the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center asked Stanford professor Gi-Wook Shin to offer his perspectives on global education and his vision for South Korea. He is Korean and an expert on South Korea’s higher-education system, politics and society. He also advises some universities in Asia such as the Center for Asia-Pacific Future Studies at Kyushu University in Japan.
Shin leads two multi-year research projects—one focused on diversity and tolerance in Asia, and another on global social capital, delving into the linkages between innovation, economic globalization and diaspora communities. He recently published key findings in Global Talent with coauthor Joon Nak Choi, a Stanford graduate now professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Education has played an important role in the social and economic development of South Korea. Can you explain?
Over the past fifty years, South Korea has gone from being one of the least developed countries to one of the most developed—an “economic miracle,” as it is often referred. The country rose from periods of wartime, poverty and social unrest to become a stable high-income developed country, all in an incredibly short time span. Education has played a substantial role in South Korea’s emergence. Nearly 70 percent of Koreans between the ages of 25 and 34 years of age hold an equivalent of a bachelors degree. This is the highest ranking in all Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Investment in its own people, as well as areas of technology and the sciences, catapulted South Korea toward such success. Its education system is lauded globally. President Obama has referred to its system on multiple occasions, saying the respect and level of support given to teachers there helps to empower student learning. Teaching is a very highly respected profession in South Korea.
In pursuit of the “creative economy,” South Korea has sought to capitalize on the knowledge value of its population. How does diversity fit into this context?
South Korea, like many advanced nations, is driving toward a “creative economy,” a policy objective that President Park Geun-hye set out in Feb. 2013. It’s a strategy to move South Korea away from its manufacturing past toward a future of a service-oriented economy. The latter requires greater creative thinking, and human and social capital are necessary ingredients in that process. Many people look to Silicon Valley as a model of success, a place that continues to harness ideas and investment in those ideas. As I say, there is one known “secret” that has contributed to Silicon Valley’s success, and that’s cultural diversity. In fact Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Stanford recently on his state visit to the United States in a bid to underscore his commitment to building a creative economy in Japan. He convened with leaders of major technology firms like Apple and Twitter, and one of the main messages shared with Abe was the scale to which immigrants contributed to the workforce here. So, South Korea, like many Asian nations, would benefit from recognizing the connection between diversity and the economy, and take it one step further and actively encourage a society who accepts foreigners—this, of course, comes with inherent hurdles in any ethnically homogeneous country like South Korea.
How can a society cultivate globally responsible citizens?
Shifting a society to truly respect and value diversity can be an especially difficult task for countries steeped in nationalism and traditional values. In the case of South Korea, policies supporting values of diversity are just starting to appear, but full social integration of minorities remains a distant future. If the government acts to support diversity over the long-term, though, hopefully change is in the closer future. The challenge is for South Korea to strike the right balance between embracing the nation’s historical legacy, while also recognizing what it means to be a “global citizen” in today’s world. I’ve been working with Rennie Moon, a professor at Yonsei University, on this research question. Teachers play a definitive role in the development of students. Providing curriculum that is balanced is an important factor. This means teaching materials—from textbooks to videos—must provide a neutral stance, or even better, show information in a comparative perspective. Teachers themselves must also commit to being facilitators. Encouraging pride in one’s own country, while also showing respect and value toward others’ is a key message that teachers can help reinforce.
Why do foreign students in Korea matter? And, what role can Korean students have when abroad?
Foreign students in Korea represent a positive-sum game. For one, foreign students diversify Korea, and also help fill the national labor shortfall. In my study with Choi, we found that three groups of students prove to be more beneficial to Korean society. “Focused instrumentalists,” students who are pursuing advanced degrees in technical subjects, “focused Koreaphiles,” students who view Korea as special but focus mainly on their studies, and “youthful Koreaphiles,” students who view Korea as special but focus mainly on exploring their social environments. Instrumentalists grow an affinity to Korea by likely working for a firm in Korea upon graduation. Someone who is a Koreaphile will show affinity for Korea because of an admiration for pop culture and other aspects of Korean society—K-pop, hallyu, Korean dramas and so forth.
Increasingly, Korean students are choosing to study abroad. Just over 123,000 Korean students pursued an undergraduate degree abroad in year 2011; 29% of whom studied in the United States. We see chogi yuhak, a trend of Koreans sending their children overseas to avoid the secondary education system, which is often cited for its rigor and stressful entrance exams. Yet, even if Korean students do not return home, they still have an opportunity to contribute back to South Korea. They form a global network and serve as “transnational bridges” between South Korea and their host countries. As a result, information, innovation and other opportunities bounce between and among people on both sides. This same lesson could be applied to any country really.
What policy implications will transnational bridges have in South Korea?
The affects on policy are largely two-fold. First, South Korean universities, companies and the government must seek to promote values of diversity. The Korean government has taken steps to recognize the strategic value of recruiting foreigners. But, the push isn’t big enough yet. For example, we hosted former Seoul National University President Yeon-Cheon Oh as a visiting fellow this year. He voiced that while Korean universities are orienting some of their policies toward ‘internationalization,’ they still aren’t totally committed to the idea. Better support systems should be developed for foreign students, and tenure should be more accessible to foreign faculty members. Second, for Koreans overseas, diaspora networks could be strengthened. About 10 percent of all ethnic Koreans live outside the Korean Peninsula. Creating codified social and cultural forums for diasporans will help instill a sense of the homeland, so that they want to stay engaged.
Are aspects of South Korea’s model translatable in neighboring countries in Asia and elsewhere?
The Korean model is relevant in other developed, nonimmigrant societies. Different from settler societies like the United States or Canada, for instance, who have heterogeneous populations. Germany and Japan provide the closest comparison study; both their national identities are based on shared ethnicity. Japan has in many ways successfully leveraged its diaspora. Ethnic Japanese who left have been recruited back, and foreign unskilled workers, particularly from Asia, infuse the labor market. A large number of foreign students study in Japan. Germany also sees an substantial amount of foreign students each year. Japan now allows students to stay up to one year to search for a job after graduation, and in Germany, the same for six months. But both countries have trouble retaining graduates. Applying the case of South Korea, seeking benefits from transnational bridges could also benefit both societies. Assimilation of diasporans—like ethnic Koreans in Japan and Turkish people in Germany—should be a long-term goal.
Gi-Wook Shin wrote in Nikkei Asian Review about aspects of Silicon Valley that Asian countries should consider adopting to emulate its success, and how foreign skilled workers can provide social capital. He also contributed a post to Stanford University Press blog about steps South Korea could take to counter the "brain drain" phenomenon. Later, Shin and Rennie Moon wrote a piece for The Conversation, expanding upon the challenges that foreign faculty and students face in South Korea and other Asian nations.