A weird business

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A weird business


The author is the head of national planning team of the JoongAng Ilbo.

“The business of foreign students made the risk of epidemic greater.” “Profit-driven universities make Korean students suffer.” These comments were posted on a news article about the delay to the start of the new school year and Korean universities’ dormitory woes related to the “self-quarantine” of Chinese students.

Those who left the comments were wary of the growing number of foreign students on top of fears related to the coronavirus outbreak and anti-Chinese sentiment after the Hong Kong protests last year.

As the comments suggest, Korean universities wanted to attract foreign students. As of April 2019, the number of foreign students in Korean universities was 160,000, including 70,000 Chinese, doubling in the five years since 2014. And the government helped as well. In 2015, a plan to expand the number of foreign students was presented with the goal of attracting 200,000 students by 2023. The visa issuance process was also simplified for verified universities.

Why did the universities and the government “collaborate?” Aside from the justifications to globalize campuses and educate pro-Korean elites, local universities desperately needed money after the government’s freeze in tuitions. Both conservative and liberal administrations made election promises to “halve tuition” and discouraged tuition hikes with carrots and sticks, or financial assistance and regulations.
Last year, the average tuition of private universities was 7.45 million won ($6,110), not much different from 7.41 million won in 2008. In the same period, the consumer price increased by 21.8 percent. As private universities are highly dependent on tuition, they have that much less income.

Including language-learning students, some schools depend on foreigners for 20 percent of the total tuition income. As some schools recruit students with unverified academic abilities through private agencies, they are criticized as a “visa mill” to produce “foreign students only by name.”

The foreign student business is only one of the many adverse effects of the hastily pushed half-priced tuition. A college president said that most students are educated with equipment that is more than 20-years-old. A vice president of another school said it gave up fields like AI because it could not afford to hire new professors.

The university competitiveness measured by suitability for social demand by the IMD of Switzerland ranks Korea 39 out of 59 countries in 2011 — and 55th among 63 countries in 2019. As the quality of education and research competitiveness continue to fall, Korean students would someday go to Chinese universities to study in mass.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 24, Page 28
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