The Sewol Ferry Disaster — an Engineering Education Problem  
The collapse of the Gyeongju auditorium in February followed by the capsizing of the Sewol ferry in April have resulted in hundreds of high school and university students losing their lives unnecessarily at a very early age. The cause of these sad events is being attributed mostly to the greediness of entrepreneurs who sacrifice public safety in favour of monetary gains as well as, in the case of the Sewol ferry, to incorrect behavior of the crew members. However, I would argue that, ultimately, these disasters are less the responsibility of the business owners or of the crew members and more the responsibility of the engineers in charge of the design of the ferry/auditorium or in charge of imposing the safety regulations.
Indeed, engineers are those who approved extra cabins to be added to the Sewol ferry resulting in a too-high center of gravity which made the ship more prone to capsizing. Engineers are also those who poorly designed the Gyeongju auditorium by miscalculating the additional stresses that would result due to snow accumulation on the roof. It is also government-employed engineers who were supposed to ensure that safety regulations were respected and that the ferry and auditorium were safe for public use. If the engineers working for the government and the companies had been competent and acted responsibly, the disasters would not have occurred.
In this short article, I express my opinion on why engineering disasters seem to occur more often in Korea than in other industrialized nations, and what to do to remedy the problem.
When I first arrived from Canada and joined the College of Engineering at Pusan National University in 2008 as a tenure-track faculty member, I recall one of my colleagues at the time mentioning that I was quite courageous to have come here. I thought perhaps he was referring to a lower standard of living I would encounter in Korea or perhaps to difficulties I would face in teaching in English to Korean students who may not be fully fluent in that language. It’s only several months later that I realized what my colleague meant: there is an educational problem in Korea and the educational quality is lagging considerably compared to other industrialized states.
The difference in education quality is not a minor one: an analysis of the syllabi and exams of engineering courses taught at Pusan National University (PNU) reveals that they cover approximately 2 times less material than they should when compared to those in similarly-ranked universities in the anglosphere or Europe. After discussing these matters a multitude of times with students and professors not only from PNU but from other universities in the country as well, I have little doubt that there is a serious issue in this respect not only at PNU but in most — if not all — Colleges of Engineering in Korea. Despite the number of courses and credits being essentially the same as in universities in the U.S., the courses taught here cover substantially less material, effectively resulting in the amount learnt at the tertiary level being half of what it should be.

By teaching the students shallow courses that require little effort and preparation to pass, the professors are not only preventing the engineering students to reach their full potential but are also encouraging them to develop bad habits (poor attention to details, poor self-organization, poor capabilities in solving challenging problems, etc) that many keep for the rest of their careers. This may explain the need of Korean engineers to acquire technology from abroad instead of developing their own even in flagship national projects such as the Naro rocket (Russian technology) or the KTX train (French technology). This may also be the root cause for the recent engineering-related disasters such as the Sewol ferry capsizing or the Gyeongju auditorium collapsing.
What makes the below-par educational environment at the tertiary level in Korea initially surprising is that various studies show that the Korean high school graduates are better prepared for their university studies (both in terms of material learned and in terms of problem solving skills) than their Canadian or American counterparts. And this is corroborated by my experience teaching Korean students in their freshman and sophomore years at Pusan National University: if they study as much, my PNU students do as well or better than McGill students when taught engineering courses at the same level as in Canada.
Why don't professors in Korea teach at the same level as in other industrialized nations then? I find the biggest hurdle that the professors are here facing is the too high number of courses they are required to teach. At PNU as well as in most universities in Korea, engineering professors are required to teach 9 hours of lectures per week during the semester and, often, to teach one course during the winter and summer breaks. In Canada, the United States, and the European Union, the engineering professors are required to teach at the most 6 hours per week during the semester, and none during the vacation (which is normally spent doing research or improving the course material for the following semester).
In this light, it shouldn't be surprising that the engineering courses are “diluted” in Korea and cover two times too little material: the professors are required to teach two times too many courses. As long as engineering professors are subject to such a high teaching load, there is little doubt that the quality of the courses will continue to remain low resulting in more engineering disasters in the future such as the sinking of the Sewol ferry and the collapse of the Gyeongju auditorium.

To improve the education of the Korean engineers, I would recommend the Ministry of Education to make the following changes to the regulations: (i) no engineering professor should be allowed to teach more than 6 hours per week, as anything more leads to shallow courses that are detrimental to the development of the engineering students; and (ii) incentives should be implemented to encourage the engineering professors to raise the rhythm and cover as much material as their counterparts abroad. Perhaps the best way that the latter could be achieved is through external reviews of the courses performed by faculty members from foreign universities with a strong reputation for tertiary educational quality.
The overly shallow engineering courses in Korean universities is not an insolvable problem. It could be fixed with minor changes to the regulations. Not only will this reduce the number of accidents and save lives in the future but, perhaps as importantly, this will also help reverse the less-than-positive reputation Korea has acquired on the world stage in recent times with respect to engineering safety and quality.

This article appeared in the Korea Herald on June 23rd, 2014 [l].
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