Local colleges have adopted ambitious globalization programs while creating more all-English classes and attracting talented students from foreign countries.
The administration has backed such moves under a long-term plan to nurture world-class universities and meet the growing needs of students and parents for globalized education.
But it is now considering a policy shift. The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has urged colleges to introduce more quality-oriented school programs, rather than just increasing the number of lectures given in English and accepting more foreign students.
One of such efforts is to make it compulsory for universities to get government certification first to admit new foreign students. The system, which will go into effect this year, reflects concerns that some unpopular private colleges are giving admissions to any foreign applicants in a bid to increase enrollments and boost profits.
“It’s time to strengthen monitoring of overall school policies regarding foreign students. The certification system will help enhance the quality of education services for those who want to study in Korea,” Education Minister Lee Joo-ho said in a special lecture to 1,500 Chinese students on Oct. 7.
“We will reveal the names of Korean colleges that provide ‘poor’ services to foreign students so that they won’t choose them.”
Early this month, the ministry set up the English-language website on Korean colleges (http://heik.academyinfo.go.kr/main.tw) to provide comprehensive information on Korean schools to foreign students. It plans to open a Chinese-language version as well next year.
Under the new system, “substandard” and poorly-managed colleges will be barred from getting certification for new foreign students for a certain period. Even if they apply for visas for students, the issuance will be strictly restricted, the ministry said.
The number of foreign students studying in Korea is expected to surpass 100,000 for the first time next year if it grows at a current pace, according to the ministry. As of the end of 2010, there were 83,842 foreign students from some 160 countries.
The figure has grown rapidly in recent years as Korean dramas, pop songs and movies have become more popular in many Asian and European countries.
“Compared to 2005, there are roughly four times more foreign students in Korea,” a ministry official said. “We assume that the spread of Korean pop culture has contributed to the fast growth in the number of foreign students, improving the country’s reputation. It suggests that Korea has become more familiar to many countries around the world.”
Despite such efforts to take better care of foreign students, Korean colleges are still largely unknown in most countries.
Of the 83,842 foreign students studying in Korea, about 59,000, or 69 percent, are from China, followed by Japan with 4.6 percent and Mongolia with 4 percent.
More than half of the foreign students were staying in Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province areas, the ministry said.
Officials said Korea is the best geographical fit for Chinese students, but it should try to find a balance and variations by providing access to students from other countries, too.
“There is a long way to go for local colleges to become familiar in other countries,” said Choi Young-chool, a ministry official. “What’s important now is not a reckless push for globalization, but to change the way we globalize and improve our services to meet the needs of foreign students. That’s why we decided to adopt the certification system.”
The education authorities are also moving to toughen the qualifications for foreign students. From this year, their Korean language abilities have been more thoroughly evaluated and have been used to distinguish those who want to study from those who want to live here.
Indeed, the ministry’s quality-oriented globalization tactics for the country’s higher-learning institutions have paid off.
Under the World Class University (WCU) program, initiated in 2008, the government has focused on nurturing research-oriented universities. It has attracted famous faculty from abroad to enhance the competitiveness of Korean schools.
The government also picked seven two-year and three-year vocational colleges to nurture them into globally competitive schools under the World Class College project. The ministry plans to select a total of 21 vocational colleges by 2013 and expand financial and administrative support for them.
The schools designated as World Class Colleges will receive an annual state subsidy of 260 billion won each for the next three years. They will also receive a separate subsidy to provide more scholarships for students.
In the same context, the ministry is trying to change the way students learn English. Officials say once the National English Ability Test (NEAT), a state-administered proficiency exam that focuses on evaluating speaking and writing skills, is implemented next year, it is expected to create a new trend in English education here.
It is seeking to replace popular tests, such as TOEIC, with NEAT as a key reference for schools and enterprises in the long term amid concerns over growing costs for taking foreign language tests. Also, it plans to decide next year on whether to replace the English section of the College Scholastic Ability Test with NEAT.
The development of NEAT reflects concerns about growing household spending on English education. According to the government, more than 15 trillion won is being spent annually on private English education, which more than 90 percent of elementary school students receive.
“English proficiency has become more important in entering a good college and getting a good job. However, most children can’t learn at private institutes as tuition is too expensive,” said another ministry official.
“We hope NEAT, which will be created and evaluated by selected English teachers nationwide, will be helpful in addressing the ‘English education divide’ between rich and poor.”
To ensure the effectiveness of English education, the ministry adopted a new system to increase the number of Korean teachers qualified to teach English in English. There are about 7,000 to 8,000 such teachers, probably exceeding the number of foreign English teachers here, according to ministry officials.
It has also urged schools to change the existing curriculum on English education so that children can learn the language for more hours and take courses on speaking and writing as well as reading and listening, they added.