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KAIST students, faculty puzzled

International students express concern about change in English-only policy

DAEJEON ― At this time every year, a strawberry festival is held at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon, some 160 kilometers south of Seoul.

During the event, students and faculty members sit together to share ideas and thoughts while eating fresh strawberries grown at neighboring farms.

But the mood at the campus was not so amicable Tuesday, the second day of the school’s official mourning period for the recent suicides of four students and one professor.

The walls and bulletin boards were filled with hand-written posters that expressed anger about the school’s competitive environment and president Suh Nam-pyo as well as their sympathy over the deaths.

Some students were collecting signatures to call for the school chief’s resignation on the campus, while Suh reaffirmed his willingness to remain in his post during a parliamentary session held in the day.

‘Suh Nam-pyo generation’

Lee Byung-chan, a senior student majoring in mathematical science at the school, had no idea about the then-new grade-based tuition system until he passed the extremely competitive entrance exam.

“It was just after I got a notice of success from the school. I found I might have to pay the fees if my grades are not high enough,” he said.

Lee was one of the first newcomer students who entered the school in 2007 after Suh, a former MIT professor, took office as the school chief in June 2006.

Lee called himself one of the “Suh Nam-pyo generation” which has faced the president’s vigorous academic experiments over the past four years.

The state-funded elite school, which was established in 1971 to nurture talented scientists and engineers, used to be tuition-free.

But Suh adopted a unique tuition system in 2007, which applies different fees to students based on their academic performance.

Under the system, those who failed to get a grade point average better than 3.0 out of the total 4.3 faced up to 6 million won ($5,520) in fees from the second semester. For international students, the system was implemented from their third semester.

Of the total 7,805 students enrolled last year, 1,600 students, or 12.9 percent, paid an average of 2.45 million won. And the figure has been on the rise recently, with 4.9 percent in 2008 and 8 percent in 2009.

In another reform, all lectures, except for those related to Korea such as history, are now delivered in English.

Even though many KAIST students have graduated from special-purpose high schools teaching higher-level English, the English-only policy put a lot of pressure on them, according to some students.

“Even Japanese and Spanish language courses are conducted in English,” said another “Suh Nam-pyo generation” student who declined to be identified.

“Professors also seem to have difficulty using English. Because they are not native English speakers, I feel the quality of lectures becomes low and it’s not easy to understand.”

However, the more pressure students and faculty felt, the higher the school’s international recognition went.

Over the years, the school has continued to break its record in authoritative worldwide rankings such as the QS-Times list.

No safety net

KAIST students agree that some trade-off is inevitable when it comes to reform and competition is unavoidable.

However, they claim they have no “safety net” under the leadership of Suh, who refuses to tolerate failure.

“There’s no way for us to recover what’s lost. We are just driven to the verge of breakdown,” said Lee, who is now leading an emergency committee to collect opinions of students. According to him, it is the first time such an organization has been formed in the history of KAIST. 
Faculty members talk at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon on Wednesday. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)
Faculty members talk at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon on Wednesday. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

At the school, students are not allowed repeat the same courses to upgrade their grades. They also have to complete the undergraduate courses within the regular school year or face fees for the extra semesters.

“Graduate students say the campus environment has been greatly changed now. I feel the competitive mood here is getting fiercer in recent years,” Lee said.

Of the four students who took their own life this year, two were sophomores who entered the school in 2010, while one was a freshman this year.

Extreme stress over school work was cited by some as one of the key reasons for their deaths.

Right after the latest death early this month, the school announced follow-up measures including the abolition of the punitive tuition system for the first eight semesters and more consultation programs for students.

However, students said the measures were not enough.

“We are not trying to avoid competition. We want a fundamental change in Suh’s reform policy which puts emphasis only on competition. Without it, there will be no true progress,” Lee said, criticizing the president for having not shown a sincere attitude toward “real change.”

“A growing number of students are upset about the current situation. After collecting opinions from them, we plan to finalize our proposal to Suh.”

Among students, opinions were still mixed over the school’s English-only policy and Suh’s immediate departure.

The student council has yet to announce its official stance about the two issues.

The minorities

Amid the recent uproar within and outside the school, international students there also raised concerns about the recent deaths.

Despite the school’s efforts to enhance its global profile, they are still a minority group of some 550 students, less than 10 percent of the total enrollment.

“Like in any other top university, it is difficult to maintain a good GPA here,” said Nayan Kalita, a 23-year-old from India, adding that Korean students are very hard-working.

“We foreign students are also struggling because this is a new environment and the style of education is different.”

But he thought that the competition environment is quite natural in a school with talented students.

Kalita, who is also leading the school’s international student association from this semester, assured the comments were his personal opinions because the group has yet to discuss the recent events on the campus.

Touma from Tunisia, who is majoring in aerospace engineering, said she had to pay about $400 last semester.

“I don’t want to pay. But I think it is reasonable. The system would motivate students to study harder,” she said.

She suggested that programs be offered for students to share their concerns, saying, “We feel lonely because every one here is very busy with homework and projects.”

Claudia from Indonesia, who is studying civil and environmental engineering, said an “adaptation year,” currently only given to international students, is needed for Korean students too.

“When I came first here, school officials said foreign students don’t need to care about the GPA during the first year because we need to adapt to Korean culture first.

“I think it also needs for Korean students. They just graduated from high school and university life is a very different level,” she said.

But their major concern, among other things, was their fellow students’ call for more Korean classes.

They pointed out that any change in the policy could greatly affect their study and life at the already bilingual campus, saying most of them are Asians who are not native English speakers.

“We are having the same linguistic problem of Korean students,” said the girl from Tunisia.

“They can get explanations in Korean if they request it to professors. But we get it still in English. More Korean classes would not be good for us.”

By Lee Ji-yoon (