Scholars hail top Korean university’s plan to scrap majors

More fluid degree paths could help graduates develop critical thinking, academics say, amid concerns over how similar changes could affect recruitment

August 28, 2022
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Scholars have welcomed a radical move by a top South Korean university to pivot its undergraduate degree courses from ones based on narrow major tracks to broader interdisciplinary programmes.

The plan, which would shift Seoul National University (SNU) from its decades-old admissions practices, involves future entrants not following a specific major but instead undertaking a broad programme in line with their academic interests, according to reports.

Academics said the pivot would help the university, which was founded in 1946, remain relevant as it becomes increasingly important for graduates to acquire a wide range of skills to distinguish themselves in a rapidly changing world.

Jae-Eun Jon, an associate professor of education at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said removing the barriers set by majors was “the ultimate path that we need” for higher education to take.

While she did not foresee the change hurting SNU’s admissions, she cautioned that similar changes might come as more of a struggle for other institutions, with some already having experienced “failing in recruiting and retaining students when they were not initially assigned to certain majors or departments”.

David Tizzard, an assistant professor in Korean studies at Seoul Women’s University, agreed that the move was a step in the right direction.

“I think what we are seeing is positive. People are trying to bring about change and reform to the Korean education system,” he said.

According to Professor Tizzard, the pivot is one sign that universities are recognising that “this new environment requires new skills” and “talented individuals capable of demonstrating individuality, creativity, technological expertise and a broad understanding of the world”.

While the verdict was out on whether SNU’s overhaul would ultimately benefit the university and its students, he said he “applauds” administrators for trying something new.

Jun Yoo, a professor in the department of Korean language and literature at Yonsei University, echoed the sentiment.

“I do give SNU credit [for] trying to shake the proverbial hive, and hope it can generate a healthy conversation on how to build a more equitable place for higher education…revamping departments [and or] majors is not a bad idea if the primary goal is to train students in critical thinking and allows them to think in innovative ways,” he said.

“I think in the spirit of trying to find new ways to improve the curriculum – eg, getting all the students to take humanities courses during the first year – it’s a start.”

But he, too, noted the need for broader reforms of higher education in South Korea, which currently amounts to a “high-pressure conveyor belt” that begins well before university, with the widespread use of private “hakwon” cram schools “deeply troubling”.

“This kind of system does not train students to think critically and creatively, and those with the financial wherewithal always end up having an edge,” he said.

A more dramatic overhaul to Korea’s education system is overdue, beginning with secondary schooling, Professor Yoo continued.

“Building such a system requires major changes by reforming the skewered admission policies at the high school level,” he said.

pola.lem@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Every 7-10 years for 3-40 years, this happens. Each time it is deemed unprecedented and unique. It never lasts. It seldom goes beyond slogans (and often cheating students). Interdisciplinarity--which is complicated and contradictory--is never defined. There is a critical literature, from Harvey Graff, Undisciplining Knowledge to Jerry Jacobs, In Defense of Disciplines, and Elijah Millgram, The Great Endarkenment When will proponents do some homework and dare to learn? It is almost never rocket science!

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