South Korea’s answer to Minerva University: The Taejae experiment

In January 2022, South Korea’s Taejae University Foundation was launched, the first step in establishing a new global online university that touts itself as Korea’s answer to the groundbreaking Minerva University set up in 2012 in the United States. In April 2023, the institution was finally approved by the Korean Ministry of Education.

Its president, Yeom Jaeho, was clear about his mission: “Korea gave the world BTS. So why not a world-class university? My goal is to turn Taejae into a university that can hold its own against the likes of the elite schools in the US within four to five years.”

Backed by big names

Backing this ambitious venture is Cho Chang-gul, the founder of Hanssem, one of the most successful furniture enterprises in South Korea.

He reportedly invested a staggering KRW300 billion (approximately US$226 million), declaring that Taejae University aims to expand the legacy of high-impact educational institutions – much like the universities founded more than 150 years ago by philanthropic luminaries such as Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt, who have led the world in developing outstanding leaders and talent.

Scanning through the list of figures who sent congratulatory messages to newly enrolled students – who took the opportunity to join an institution at its infant stage without any proven records in job placement, quality of education or alumni networking – it is clear that Yeom has significant influence.

Having obtained his PhD from Stanford University, he previously led Korea University and the Korea Foundation for Advanced Studies and currently serves as chair of the SK Group Council. His network includes big names like Ban Ki-moon, former United Nations secretary-general, deputy prime ministers of Korea, presidents of elite universities in South Korea, and many more.

Expectation versus reality

Recently, the university announced that its first cohort of 32 freshmen just embarked on their innovative higher education journey this autumn. Opening a university is a big deal anywhere in the world, but it is even more extraordinary in South Korea, given the current downturn in the school-age population and the fact that it has been over a decade since the last four-year cyber university was founded.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing on the journey to opening day. The university initially had its sights set on a March 2023 launch. However, a few bumps in the road pushed the big day back to September.

As a result, many within South Korean higher education circles were keenly interested in the university’s first enrolment numbers, particularly given its two years of preparation. This involved securing government approval, developing a curriculum, recruiting faculty and students and setting up academic and residential facilities, not to mention unseen logistical challenges.

Despite the annual enrollment quota of 200 students - half domestic and half international - the university fell short, especially on the international front where only five students enrolled.

Following in Minerva’s footsteps

What then is Taejae University selling its prospective students? Like its inspiration, Minerva University, Taejae is all about innovation in the education landscape.

Ben Nelson, a savvy entrepreneur, kicked off the Minerva project over a decade ago. The educational enterprise he invented with great vision had a huge impact on South Korean higher education, being cited on countless occasions as the most remarkable case of innovative and technology-driven higher education.

Both Minerva and Taejae have ditched the old bricks-and-mortar model – you won’t find any physical libraries or gyms here. Instead, students tune into their classes online, teaming up with companies and non-profits around the globe to get their hands busy solving real-world problems.

Everything is taught in English, with additional programmes available to improve English skills, leadership abilities and career prospects. There are also fully funded trips to Silicon Valley and Europe on offer for all students.

To make sure everyone feels like part of the Taejae family, the university will also run a metaverse campus. The teaching roster was due to be a mix of 40 full-time and 60 part-time professors from top-tier universities like Harvard, Yale and Chicago.

Furthermore, it provides extracurricular programmes designed for its ‘student success’ scheme.

At Taejae, students get to jet-set around the world. After they’ve spent three semesters in Seoul, they’ll head off for a semester each in Tokyo, New York, Hong Kong and Moscow. No matter where they are in the world, they’ll be living in local residence halls and engaging in a civic project at each rotation city. There may be attractive scholarship opportunities on offer.

What clearly distinguishes it from Minerva University then? Many aspects look cloned, for instance, the city rotation structure, the focus on a civic project and its digitised curriculum labelled ‘Active Learning’.

One of the Minerva staff I met earlier said ‘copy-and-pasting is not a good strategy’. Minerva has significantly impacted the higher education market, particularly in South Korea, by successfully branding itself as a college start-up that has a 1.9% acceptance rate, making it a tougher place to get into than Harvard.

According to information on its website, Taejae initially sought collaboration with Minerva, but Yeom opted to carve out an independent path for the institution. He said: “While we’ve learned a lot from Minerva, we’re ready to forge our own path. We’d rather you didn’t call us ‘Korea’s Minerva’ anymore. We’re Taejae University.”

Although it has taken 10 years for South Korean higher education to follow the new higher education model started in Silicon Valley, it is remarkable that such a bold decision has been taken to do so.

It is an uncertain but exciting time for Taejae University. While initial enrolment has fallen short of expectations, the institution frames this not as a ‘low enrolment’ but rather as being about ‘high selectivity’ – a deliberate attempt to counter any negative perception. In media coverage, it is noticeable that Taejae seems sensitive to the number of students enrolled as it emphasises that it did not want to admit unqualified or unsuitable applicants.

Opportunities and challenges

What are the opportunities and challenges for the university on the horizon? Unfortunately, it has been easier to identify the challenges than to list the potential opportunities.

Domestically, South Koreans generally seek prestigious educational institutions and are fairly conservative when it comes to enrolment decisions. Most critically, given the hierarchical nature of higher education in South Korea, it will require significant effort to convince potential students that a new educational model is a worthwhile investment based on the promise of a good return on investment.

Secondly, digital universities typically flourish in the realm of lifelong learning but are less popular among the traditional college-age population. Thirdly, as the pandemic subsides, traditional patterns in international higher education have re-emerged, as evidenced by the recent surge in the number of international students heading to US institutions.

Outside of South Korea, it will be crucial to identify the university’s unique selling points when it comes to meeting the desires and needs of international students. It will take some time for the university to find the right trajectory to boost its enrolment numbers.

Its success will undoubtedly depend on word-of-mouth recommendations from both students and their parents. As Taejae aspires to become a global institution, reaching out to different markets to identify and meet demand will be crucial for its success.

There is no certainty regarding Taejae University’s future or how it will adapt in the increasingly competitive landscape of global higher education. For now, what it can and should do is prove what sets it apart from other institutions.

Kyuseok Kim (Mick) is a PhD student at Korea University, specialising in higher education administration. He has more than 13 years of experience in international higher education, having held positions at both a research university and a US branch campus in South Korea. LinkedIn:; Blog: