International schools in Jeju Island's English campus town have fairly well served their original mission of providing an alternative to early study abroad, but more institutions and students from diverse backgrounds are needed to make it Asia's next education hub, its operating unit's chief said.
The 1.78 trillion won ($1.51 billion) education project called "Jeju Global Education City" landed on a 3.79 million square-meter complex on the southern resort island. Jeju Free International City Development Center, an investment arm of the Ministry of Land, Transport and Infrastructure, established Haeul to take charge of the project.
The South Korean government first floated the ambitious education experiment in 2008 as a growing number of parents sent their children abroad so they could learn English and avoid the brutally intense competition of the Korean educational system.
But the boom in early study abroad often resulted in the separation of families, with the mother accompanying the children abroad and fathers earning the money at home and occasionally flying to visit them, garnering the nickname "wild goose dads."
North London Collegiate School from Britain opened the first sister school in Jeju in 2011, followed by Korea International School by South Korean language education company YBM and Branksome Hall Asia from Canada. St. Johnsbury Academy, a private American boarding school, will open its Jeju campus containing primary and secondary schools in September 2016.
"The project was initially aimed at absorbing demands for overseas study by offering a more global and English-language curricula at home. So far, it has fulfilled its initial purpose as more students are opting to come to Jeju for a better education," Jung Wook-su, the chief executive of Haeul, said during a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency.
"This is only beginning. We plan to attract not only Korean students but also talent from Asian neighbors, including China, Japan and Southeast Asian nations."
The average registration rate started from 35 percent of the full capacity, and now stands at 70 percent. About half of the students are from Seoul and 15 percent of students are foreign nationals, with most of them Chinese.
Annual tuition fees range from 25-50 million won depending on grades and residence options, which are much more expensive than Korean public schools and less than comparative programs in such countries as the U.S. and Britain that entail additional living costs.
Jung said that the schools expect to fill 80 percent of the full capacity within two years, which would cause them to turn to black for the first time.
"I think we will be able to make a turnaround by 2018," the 53-year-old said.
While Incheon Free Economic Zone was considered one of the potential candidates for the project to draw students from wealthy families living in the Seoul metropolitan region, the official said Jeju is better suited for such a global project as it is more free from government influence.
"Jeju's status as a special autonomous province gives it a competitive edge over other regions, making it an ideal test bed to draw foreign investment," Jung said. "Air travel also gives a feeling of being abroad, while it is close to allow families to get together more often."
The southern resort island is a one-hour flight from Seoul and Shanghai, and two hours from Beijing, with low-cost carriers offering cheap fares.
The project initially planned to invite 12 prestigious foreign schools by 2015, but Haeul has lowered the target to seven by 2021. Talks are currently underway to attract direct investment from private institutions, he said.
English proficiency and a diploma from a foreign university can give anyone an easy pass to land decent jobs when returning to South Korea in the past, but the prolonged economic slowdown has now created a hard time in the tight job market for those with a lack of connections here. That has made more people rethink when considering making the big investment in studying abroad, as early as elementary school.
As a result, the fever of study abroad has recently lost steam with the number of students from elementary to high schools dipping to slightly over 10,000, nearly one-third of the peak at 2006, according to education ministry data.
Having seen the early batch of graduates enter top-ranking universities abroad also sparked more interest in Jeju among eager Korean parents.
"The first year of graduates showed good results in terms of receiving admissions from prestigious universities abroad, and second year graduates have produced even better outcome," he said.
The global education infrastructure also allows foreign investors to bring their families to do business in the popular vacation destination with an accommodative visa policy.
Several large-scale development projects are currently underway, involving China's property developers Greenland Group and Landing International Development Ltd as well as Genting Singapore Plc., Southeast Asia's largest casino operator.
"There are many Chinese investors who operate businesses here and also want to educate their children," Jung said. "I expect a steady surge in the number of Chinese students attending these schools as their parents have to stay here to run their business."
Jung said a diverse mix of ethnicity and background is important to help students improve communication skills and develop a global perspective.
"We are making efforts to double the ratio of foreign students from the current 15 percent to 30 percent," he said, noting overseas presentations in such major Chinese cities as Beijing and Shanghai.
To be able to compete with Asia's education hubs like Singapore and Hong Kong, Jung called for the government to ease regulatory hurdles to foster a global education campus. A bill aimed at easing rules on schools sending profits to their home country is currently pending in parliament.
"After having four English-speaking campuses, we are considering hosting specialized schools related to arts, tourism and China," he said.
In response to the unavoidable criticism over the schools only for those "born with a silver spoon in their mouth," Jung said the government has assigned 500 million won to scholarships for students from lower-income families since last year.
The amount, however, is not enough to draw a meaningful number of low-income families to the schools, which charge extra money on some afterschool programs and overseas excursions.
"Opportunities should not just open to a few selected children from affluent family background," the official said, though he fell short of elaborating on support measures citing Haeul's operating deficit at present. (Yonhap)