As the country began looking to education as a source of potential economic growth recently, Korean universities increasingly adopted English-language instruction to attract more exchange students.
But the results have begun to peter out, while foreign students’ complaints about the lectures are mounting. After growing sharply in the years up to 2011, the number of foreign students has begun to fall, according to data from the Ministry of Justice.
Adelide Kamanthe from the Korea International Students’ Support Association said that English-language instruction was one of the most common causes for complaint among foreign students here.
“Sometimes the professor does speak in English, but not enough Korean students speak good enough English to understand him, so he ends up speaking in Korean because there are two foreigners and 50 Korean students,” she said, adding that at other times the professor intended to teach in English but either his or the students’ ability level made this unrealistic.
Part of the motivation for Korean universities to adopt English-language instruction is that it indirectly boosts international rankings.
Each year, university rankings are drawn up by the Times Higher Education World University Ranking and the QS World University Ranking, among others, which allot points for the proportion of foreign staff and students.
For Times Higher Education, 7.5 percent of its final assessment is based on the percentage of international students and staff, while at QS World University Ranking, 10 percent of the assessment is based on similar criteria.
In a country where the native language is not widely spoken abroad, increasing these numbers effectively requires English-language classes.
But the courses are not as English-friendly as they sound.
Such classes have been launched abruptly by universities and various factors have been overlooked, according to Eva Maria Wang, public relations officer of the Organization of Filipino Scholars in Korea.
Wang has participated as a student representative in various campaigns, such as the Open Forum on Policy Development for International Students at the National Assembly, the Student Leaders’ Forum at the National Institute for International Education and the Open Dialogue with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.
Universities’ English-language instruction policies “have an inclining problem of over-promising and under-delivering,” she said in a report drawn up by PIKO for KISSA.
“Although some courses are listed on registration as ‘English classes,’ only materials such as PowerPoints, (and) reading materials are in English. The whole class proceeds in Korean since (the) majority of students are not proficient in English.”
Sandrine Guilhem, an exchange student from France, has had similar experiences.
“The professor was fluent in English, so prima facie the course was okay,” she said.
“But every time she asked something in English, Korean students used to answer in Korean, which became a real difficulty for us and for the teacher, who had to translate everything. Sometimes she (the professor) forgot to translate, and we started to feel really uncomfortable.”
Guilhem added that the class materials were in English and Korean, which didn’t help the situation.
Because Korean students learn English starting in primary school, some assume that they are well prepared for English-language classes. But this is often not the case. Instead, professors allow students to participate in Korean, which creates not only a gap between exchange students and local students, but also blocks international students from class participation.
In the worst case, it could mean exclusion from the lectures, as another international student who signed up for a course advertised as being taught in English experienced.
“A few professors asked the exchange students indirectly to leave the course so that the working language could be exclusively in Korean,” he said, asking to remain anonymous due to fear of academic repercussions.
“(In the end) the supply of English courses was wide-ranging, so everybody was able to find a course,” he said.
But Kamanthe believes that balancing the needs of Korean and foreign students is a tough proposition.
“It’s not just a matter of ‘why aren’t you teaching in English?’ It’s complex and I’m not sure what the solution would be.”
She said courses should not have been advertised as being in English if they weren’t, but pointed out that one reason this didn’t happen was that departments were under pressure to meet targets for English-language instruction.
Wang said that in some cases the solution could be to provide specialized courses in academic Korean, so that students could follow courses in the local language.
An Education Ministry official said that since universities had legal autonomy over their curriculum, there was no policy governing the level of English-language instruction.
He said the ministry could intervene if it found that the school was breaking its own regulations. Sanctions could run as far as student quota reductions. However, he said there were no measures to prevent the problems from arising or help resolve the issues without resorting to investigations and sanctions.
Although the situation has attracted little political attention, there has been some progress on the student level through a “buddy system.” In the program, Korean students, or “buddies,” help foreign students adjust to the academic and social environment in Korea.
Universities with such systems include Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul and Hannam University in Daejeon.
By Bileg Tsedensodnom, Intern reporter