Scholarly Comments on Academic Economics

Incentivizing Exports in Academic Planning: The Rise of South Korea and Lessons for Underdeveloped Nations


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Since the mid-2000s, the Web of Science (WoS), produced by Thomson Reuters, has been used in several global university rankings. Since 2004, South Korean universities have jumped in WoS publications and global university rankings. This article argues that, in the past, Korea was characterized at all hierarchical levels by personal favoritism. But the military government that seized power in the 1960s used a rigorous system of quantified exports, wherein companies meeting export targets were rewarded. The system enabled South Korea to break the vicious circle of personal favoritism in the manufacturing sector of the economy. In its academic institutions, meanwhile, personal favoritism remained rampant and Korean scholars were clearly underperforming. In the late 1990s, South Korea sought reform of higher education, as part of a shift to a knowledge-based economy. In reforming higher education, the country copied the export strategy that had succeeded in advancing the production of manufactured goods. The government used the WoS and, later, global university rankings to reward productive scholars and punish unproductive ones. The system of quantified exports used in higher education was successful in filtering out free-riders and rent-seekers, minimizing bureaucratic costs, promoting English as a lingua franca in academia, and promoting globalization in scholarship. The system might be counterproductive in the long run, however, for a number of reasons.