In the mid-1960s, Korea began to develop and nurture light and heavy chemical industries, which was the origin of Korea’s economic miracle. In order to transform the nation from a basically agrarian economic structure to a world leader in complex technology, Korea needed scientists and engineers in the chemical, electric, electronic and other industrial fields. To foster highly qualified scientists and engineers for Korea’s industrialization, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) was established in Seoul, the capital of Korea, under a special law on February 16, 1971. It was Korea’s first research-oriented graduate school in science and engineering. The law defined the purpose of KAIST establishment as “education and training of highly qualified scientists and engineers equipped with theoretical and practical expertise, to create an R&D hub based on national policies, and to support national research activities.”
The Move and 1990s
A number of major changes took place in the operation and functions of KAIST in the 1980s. Most significant was its move in 1989 to a new campus in the city of Daejeon, 140 kilometers south of Seoul. By the late 1980s, KAIST established the education/research system for special talents for bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. The vast majority of KAIST graduates went to either Korea’s core industries or national research institutes. Korea’s rise in semiconductor, automobile, and chemical industries during the 1980s and 1990s should be greatly credited to both KAIST graduates and professors. Moreover, KAIST gave birth to the venture industry in Korea in the early 1980s; Qnix, Madison, Turbotech, and NHN are just a few well-known venture companies founded by KAIST graduates. KAIST’s contribution to the development of Korea’s science and technology and the improvement of its international competitiveness is well recorded in the annals of Korea’s economic advancement.
Expansion and growth in the 2000s
While serving as an engine for Korea’s industrial development, KAIST has adopted a unique, autonomous and flexible academic system. For example, KAIST has recruited students on the basis of their high-school records, math and science grades, teacher recommendation, study plan, personal statements, and other data that demonstrate excellence in potential students, instead of scores from the state-run scholastic ability test. Its “open major system” allows undergraduate student to take classes for three terms before choosing a discipline. KAIST has produced many young doctors in their 20s through the Integrated Master’s and Doctoral Program and Early Completion System. KAIST requires candidate students to publish their papers in globally renowned academic journals to ensure high quality of their doctoral dissertation.
KAIST’s academic superiority has been verified by the assessments of many domestic and overseas institutions. The U.S higher science education assessment board, ABET, put KAIST graduate course within 10% of top U.S. college level in 1992, and KAIST topped Korea’s university rankings announced by the Seoul-based newspaper Joongang Ilbo in 1995 and four consecutive years from 1998 to 2001, and it was selected as the No. 1 Asian college in science and technology by the Hong Kong-based newsmagazine, Asiaweek, in 1999 and 2000. Leading scientific publications Nature (Britain, July 1993) and Science (USA, October 1993) assessed that KAIST has the potential to be the world’s best-level education institution. In 2006, The Times Higher Education report placed KAIST at the 37th in the world in technology field and 82nd in the science field. Furthermore, KAIST was nominated as the world’s top system engineering institution by the Systems and Software Engineering journal in February 2008.
Over the past 38 years, KAIST has produced 8,998 bachelors, 8,636 masters, 7,067 doctorate holders (doctors under 30 years of age numbered 3,046; approximately 43%), bringing its total alumni to 34,701. Theses published in science citation index (SCI) journals reached approximately 4 articles per professor each year in science and technology fields, and the commissioned research grant amounted to approximately 362 million won per facility, which is at a world-class level. Business start-ups by KAIST alumni numbered 368 companies in high-tech fields (as of March 2003).
KAIST Innovation in 2007
In early 2007, KAIST launched a comprehensive five-year development plan to strengthen competitiveness, with the specific aim to join the ranks of the world’s top 10 science and technology universities by 2011. The plan was finalized under the initiative of KAIST president Nam Pyo Suh who previously taught at the MIT and served as vice president of the U.S. National Science Foundation from 1984 to 1988. “The 21st century offers KAIST both challenge and opportunity. However, it is difficult for the university to become a highly competitive international school with its existing attitude and atmosphere,” President Suh said.
The KAIST strategic plan aimed at lifting KAIST up to the world-class level consists of the following major targets:
1. Increasing the number of full-time faculty, from 429 to 700, to lower the school’s
student-professor ratio from 9.8:1 to 6:1
2. Increasing undergraduate enrollment ceiling to 4,000 by 2013
3. Establishing the department centric system/boundary-less research system to
give department more autonomy and to strengthen mutual research cooperation
4. Establishing KAIST Institutes to enhance research capabilities and strengthen
interdisciplinary research areas
5. Changing the tenure system to secure excellent professors
6. Appointing Distinguished Professors to give motivation for world-class research outputs
7. Lecturing all courses in English
8. Strengthening design and synthesis education
9. Introducing dual degree program to offer students diverse education opportunities
(with Georgia Institute of Technology, Univ. of California Santa Barbara, Tsinghua Univ.
of China, Tokyo Institute of Technology, and other top-class universities in Europe)
10. Fundraising up to $1 billion in seven years
KAIST’s reform plans have caught the attention of international media, as shown in the following examples:
► KAIST President puts reform drive in high gear – Korea Herald, Dec. 27, 2007
Reform has been the buzzword among Korean universities this year as schools strive to cope with ever intensifying global competition. At the vanguard of the nationwide drive is the KAIST, whose enhancement program has been highly praised as a symbol of Korea’s educational renewal”
► S. Korea science prepares to take on the world – International Herald Tribune, Jan. 19, 2008
“When the South Korean government hired Suh in 2006 to shake up the state-financed KAIST, the country’s leading schools faced a crisis. The old system, which guaranteed free tuition to lure promising students into science and technology, the drivers of South Korea’s industrial growth, was no longer working as well as it used to.”
► Top South Korea college to work with NASA – AP, Jan. 27, 2008
“Under the deal, NASA’s Ames Research Center will cooperate with the KAIST in fields such as satellite communications, lunar science, rovers and small satellites, the school said in a statement.”
► MIT engineer shakes Korea academia to its core – Science Magazine, Nov. 30, 2007
“An even more radical step was putting teeth into tenure reviews. Traditionally, faculty members in Korea gain tenure after logging enough years, Suh insisted that KAIST professors up for tenure gather endorsements from experts in their field around the world. In September, 11 of 33 applicants were denied tenure and were given a year to find new jobs.”
► Science institute’s new president sets a blistering pace for reform
– Chronicle of Higher Education, Mar. 21, 2008
“Mr. Suh says he will continue to innovate. He has made headlines by raising more than $ 13 million from private donors, part of his effort to introduce an American-style endowment. He does all this while dividing his time between the university and his home back in Boston, where his four daughter still live. “It can be a tough life, but I chose it because I believe we can be one of the best universities in the world,” he says. “I wouldn’t have taken this job unless I did.”
KAIST, Top in the 21st century
In early 2008, KAIST announced the second phase of the KAIST 5-Year Development Plan. Firstly, KAIST will vastly change its teaching program and curriculum, creating new schools and departments to give major thrust to areas of science and technology which are of growing importance in the 21st century. Under the plan, KAIST will newly establish the College of Life Science and Bioengineering and the College of Information Science and Technology, and three departments – the Department of Nanoscience & Technology, the Department of Ocean Systems Engineering and the Department of Intelligent Service Engineering. As a result of the restructuring, KAIST organization will be transformed into six colleges, five specialized schools and 19 departments from four colleges, five schools and 16 departments.
Secondly, KAIST will implement new research programs in energy, environment, water and sustainability (EEWS), the crucial fields that need to be solved in the 21st century, and encourage high risk/high return (HR/HR) researchers in order to create new research fields/industries in Korea. KAIST has already initiated EEWS campus-wide trans-disciplinary research in 2007. Also, KAIST has worked with many international organizations to bring in intellectual and financial resources to KAIST from other countries and become a global university that competes and cooperates with the best institutions in the world.
The 2008 programs and changes are expected to enable KAIST to attract the best students and resources in an increasingly competitive and global academic environment. “Universities that are most successful are those that are best at responding to our changing world. KAIST has the opportunity to become a leading university by searching for and solving important problems that require new approaches and new thinking,” President Suh said.
Now, KAIST has changed dramatically to become the global top-10 universities. KAIST passion toward tomorrow never is getting cold. After the five years, KAIST will be one of the best science and technology universities in the world.