The University and Industrial Policy

Sitting down for dinner at an Italian restaurant in Seoul on the last day of my trip through East Asia, I noticed a long table with a dozen reporters huddled around it. Presiding was an old friend of mine, currently serving as Dean of the Engineering School at Seoul National University, the top university in Korea. From the way the reporters were intently jotting down his remarks, you would think the dean was a major public figure, not just another academic running a school. Between morsels of pasta I eavesdropped on the conversation between the dean and journalists, picking up terms like “competitiveness,” “US News & World Report,” “measurable progress,” and of course, “benchmarks”—the vocabulary of excellence and competition, the lingua franca of higher education these days.

Curious at the preponderance of reporters at the dinner table, I asked if any of them covered Seoul National University exclusively. They laughed and said that they all did. In fact, there are some twenty reporters who cover this single university—as if it were the White House, or in the Korean context, the Blue House. The size of the press corps assigned to Seoul National University should erase any doubt in anyone’s mind about the central role universities are playing in the carefully plotted future of that country—and through a well-known Korean mechanism that dares not speak its name: industrial policy. Seoul National University made it to the top 50 universities in the world in the US News & World Report rankings —something that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago—because of the large flow of R&D support provided by the government.

The situation is not dissimilar at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), the two universities I visited on this same trip, and with whom the College is cautiously exploring programmatic possibilities. These universities are deeply cherished by their governments, as if they are national treasures—and not just because education, along with the institutions of family and the state, have formed the pillars of the Chinese civilization. Today higher education in Hong Kong and Singapore is the engine of massive social transformation, turning yesterday’s beehive of manufacturing into tomorrow’s global hub of knowledge and knowledge-intensive industries. Even in laissez faire Hong Kong and Singapore, the university has become the agent of industrial policy.

Not surprisingly, the governments of Singapore and Hong Kong are approaching this the only way they know how—by drawing in the greatest talents from around the world, and making alliances with the best and the brightest in North America, Europe, and Asia. The moment that they understood that universities accelerate economic growth, they went at it with vengeance. Determined to make their once sleepy universities into some of the very best in the world, they connected them to the rest of the world, and with amazing speed.

Singapore and Hong Kong are impatient cities. Even before they knew how to manufacture, they drew in foreign investments; even before they sold at home, they sold abroad. Now, even before their universities develop their own talent, they are drawing talent from abroad; their campuses teem with Nobel laureates and US national academy members giving lectures, running conferences, and in general transiting in and out. They have Memoranda of Understanding with world-famous universities—for student exchanges, branch campuses, joint-degree programs—anything to quicken the circulation of knowledge. This kind of international traffic invigorates scholarship, but it also generates reputations, reputations that are reflected in rankings.

On my way out to the airport the next morning in driving rain, I got a call from one of the reporters at the dinner. He wanted to know what I thought about the quality of the Korean universities (which I said was excellent), and whether some of their best colleges might have the College of Arts and Sciences at Virginia as benchmark (a worthy goal, I said). The great universities in Asia and the University of Virginia all have the same aspiration: to provide our students with the skills necessary to learn the truth, however it might be defined. The truth, after all, is what Aristotle said was the point of education. But the philosopher also said there was a another point to education: to inculcate virtue.

And there’s the rub: how do you rank virtue?

One Response to “The University and Industrial Policy”

  1. andrew says:

    great post – i love reading blogs by academics because they’re so packed with information! is there any political economy work which explicitly puts universities within the industrial policy/developmental state framework?