Campus ReportingCampus Issue
Wanted, then ForgottenShedding light on the lax management of foreign students in South Korea
Kim Hyo-jin  |
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승인 2016.05.11  00:17:27
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SEEING INTERNATIONAL students on campus is no longer an odd experience. With the Korean government aiming to resolve the ongoing depopulation of students and boost globalization of Korean universities, measures to attract more foreign students have been implemented since 2004. Throughout the country, universities began to competitively admit international students, such that the number of foreign students nationwide reached 91,332 in 2015, according to the National Institute of International Education (NIIE). Yet the poor management of these foreign students has triggered several serious problems.
Studying abroad in South Korea
   Living in the 21st century, the era of globalization, many students throughout the world increasingly want to study in a foreign environment. This has led them to universities abroad, with diverse educational programs;the number of college students studying abroad has soared from 1.8 million in 2000 to 2.7 million in 2005. Alongside the global trend to study abroad, English speaking countries have shown more efforts to bring in more foreign students to their universities. Moreover, as Asia began to play a crucial role in the global economy, countries such as Japan, China, and South Korea also began to attract foreign students more actively.
   In South Korea, the extremely low birthrate, which was barely 1.21 per woman in 2015, consequently triggered a decrease in the number of students entering universities. According to Statistics Korea, the average number of annual newborns plummeted from 685,000 during the 1990s to a mere 435,000 in 2014. Hence, some universities were unable to fill their student quota and faced financial difficulties which almost forced less popular universities to close their doors. As a response to the decreasing number of students, in 2004, the Ministry of Education (MOE) decided to reduce the entrance quota allotted to each university. For this reason, universities in and near the capital, which were originally able to secure a sufficient number of freshmen, were also faced with undesirable financial cutbacks. As such, in the same year, the MOE and universities nationwide turned their attention to promote programs targeting foreign students to study abroad in South Korea. By bringing in more foreign students, whose number is not regulated by the entrance quota, universities could compensate for the reduction of freshmen mandated by the MOE. After such measures were implemented, the number of foreign students in South Korea noticeably increased from 11,646 to 32,557 between 2001 and 2006.
In the case of Yonsei University, 1,835 foreign students from 113 different countries were newly enrolled in 2015 to acquire their degrees, taking up about 10.5% of the total number of enrolled students. In addition to Underwood International College (UIC), which was established in 2008, the Global Leadership Division was created in 2015 to further promote foreign students’ education in South Korea. Hwang Jung-won (Director, Office of Admission) said, “We admit talented students to guide them to become more professional, regardless of their ethnicities. By having foreign students studying within Yonsei and our society, we expect to create a more global academic environment.”
As part of the measures implemented by the MOE to attract more international students, many foreign students come to South Korea through various programs sponsored by the South Korean government and universities. As such, they often come as students invited by the government or university under the Global Korean Scholarship (GKS) of NIIE. Nevertheless, most of the foreign students in South Korea are found to be studying abroad while covering the required expenses by themselves; according to the MOE, 78,845 foreign students studying abroad were financially supporting themselves in 2015, which makes up 86% of the total. This is the main reason why Korean universities and the MOE need to pay more attention to foreign students and ensure a satisfactory college experience in South Korea. However, this is not the case.
Approved, but disqualified
In response to the steady increase in the number of foreign students, the MOE and the National Research Foundation of Korea implemented the International Education Quality Assurance System (IEQAS) in 2011, aiming to qualitatively manage foreign students within the country and further promote studying abroad in South Korea. The IEQAS annually examines all of the Korean universities using a three-level evaluation system – index review, spot investigation, and commission examination – to assess if schools have properly managed foreign students who have already enrolled in the school. The index review specifically evaluates the institutes based on seven criteria, including the foreign students’ dropout rate, linguistic proficiency in Korean and English, and the rate of students lacking proper visa. High ranking universities approved by the IEQAS would be given a priority in university selection for programs offered by the GKS. Also, a list of universities approved by the IEQAS is publicized on a website, Study in Korea, so that foreign students seeking to study abroad may use it as a reference for their choice of schools. Meanwhile, universities evaluated as the bottom 15% are restricted from issuing visas for new foreign students and are subject to counseling to improve their foreign student management programs.
The MOE recommends foreign students to acquire the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK) Level 3 at the minimum, and a TOEFL iBT score higher than 71 points to be qualified to enter four year universities and community colleges in Korea. The same linguistic standard is also used to evaluate linguistic proficiency during the index review of the IEQAS assessment. However, the index review of the IEQAS on foreign students’ linguistic proficiency is not a strictly evaluated criteria. According to Lee Bo-ram (Manager, University Evaluation Dept., MOE), universities need to only fulfill 30% in language proficiency to meet the criteria for approval of the IEQAS. Moreover, language proficiency is just one of the five elective criteria covered by the index review; if universities should fully meet the other four criteria, they could pass the first level of evaluation of the IEQAS even without fulfilling the set standard for linguistic proficiency.
Flexibility could actually be fair, taking into account that not all college programs in Korea require foreign students take courses in Korean. For instance, certain departments with curriculums in English such as Yonsei’s UIC are an exception to strictly follow the TOPIK Level requisite. However, due to such a lenient requirement on language proficiency imposed by the IEQAS, even universities without adequate English curriculums like that of the UIC tend to accept a considerable number of foreign students coming to acquire a degree regardless of their basic linguistic ability. Even among the 69 universities approved by the IEQAS, only 12 of them fulfill about 50% of the linguistic standard; the fulfillment rate of Yonsei University, one of the universities with relatively high fulfillment, is also merely 74.6%. This clearly indicates that the linguistic standard provided by the MOE is not stringently followed by universities when deciding upon the admission of foreign students. Hwang also commented, “Each university has its own right to decide upon accepting students, taking their various potentials into account.”
As a consequence, foreign students who do not understand Korean textbooks and lectures or cannot even take exams in either Korean or English have experienced difficulties in studying in Korean universities. Yu Kexin (Fresh., Global Leadership Div.) who is currently studying at the Korean Language Institute (KLI) at Yonsei to achieve TOPIK Level 4 said, “It is very difficult for me to study in certain major classes that require me to use both Korean and English at the same time, as neither of them are my first language.” In sum, some foreign students in South Korean universities must face problems regarding their academic performance, which is the result of systematic loopholes that have allowed universities to admit those lacking the necessary language ability.
Neglected duties toward foreign students
After the IEQAS was implemented, the number of students lacking proper visa among foreign students has been slowly declining; according to the Immigration Office, the number dropped from 8,709 to 6,973 between 2011 and 2014. Regarding the percentage of students illegally staying at Yonsei University, which is less than 1%, Jung Gi-seon (Chief, Office of International Affairs) said, “We guide foreign students with visa instructions so that they are fully aware of their visa expiry, and we remind them of all the documents that need to be submitted to the Immigration Office by a specified time.”
However, the number of foreign students lacking proper visa in 2014, which was 6,973, was about 8.1% of the total number of foreign students at the time. Also, over 10% of foreign students in universities which have received the bottom ranks from the IEQAS evaluation are those without proper visa. Foreign students can unintentionally be deprived of legal permission to live in the country if universities fail to guide them adequately regarding visa extension, as well as changes of their staying status which could be caused by taking a gap year, getting expelled, dropping out, or forgetting to extend their student visas.
   Thus, the universities’ neglecting their duty to thoroughly instruct foreign students on immigration regulations during their stay in South Korea could be seen to foster their unwanted illegal stay. While such an act is prescribed to be punished by a sentence to three years’ penal servitude or a fine of \200 million according to the Immigration Control Law, the MOE simply restricts low ranking universities from visa issuance for only a year. Hence, the MOE’s current guidelines for penalizing low ranking universities are not sufficient to reduce the high number of students lacking proper visa. In comparison to the massive difference in the annual number of foreign students, the number of students lacking proper visa remains unchanged. Thus it is also unlikely that the IEQAS is the optimal measure to thoroughly investigate universities’ management of foreign students.
In addition to the MOE and universities themselves, the Immigration Office also has failed to take responsibility upon foreign students. According to the Guidelines for the Issue of Visa and Management for Foreign Students, which was enacted on July 7, 2014, the Immigration Office is responsible for notifying foreign students, whose permission of staying has been cancelled or whose status of staying has been changed, to visit the office for the departure process. Moreover, in cases when foreign students take a gap year, get expelled, or withdraw, their universities are responsible to report to the Immigration Office within 15 days according to Act 19 of the Immigration Control Law. The Immigration Office must charge universities a fine of ₩20 million if they violate this law. Nevertheless, the office did not take any legal action towards 17 universities which did not report the 188 students whose permission of staying had been cancelled in 2015. The fact that both universities and the Immigration Office fail to follow the law to properly manage foreign students is eventually making it impossible to effectively prevent students’ illegal status in the country.
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   The main purpose of attracting foreign students was to boost globalization of schools and the society as a whole. And yet, as the increase in the number of foreign students has not been accompanied by improved management strategies, it seems that the MOE and universities have forgotten their role as hosts. In the current state, foreign students at Korean universities are nothing more than a number to fill a void. The universities must be aware that attracting foreign students to fund their own schools while neglecting proper management does more harm than good. Measurements other than evaluating foreign student management via the IEQAS must be implemented to guarantee an improvement in quality.

Box 1: An increase in number of foreign students in the 2000s (infographic)
Number of foreign students

Box 2: An index review of the IEQAS (797 bytes)
Educational institutes approved by the IEQAS
Bottom 15% education institutes
Qualification standards
Four year university
Community college
Four year university
Community college
    a-Rate of students lacking proper visa
b-Dropout rate
a-Less than 1% or
b- Less than 6%
Must fulfill ① and meet more than four criteria between ② to ⑥
Must fulfill ① and meet more than three criteria between ② to ⑤
a-Over 10%
Must fulfill ① and meet more than three criteria between ② to ⑥
Must fulfill ① and meet more than two criteria between ② to ⑤
    Diversity rate of students
Less than 90%
Over 95%
    Accommodation rate to freshman year students
Over 25%
    A rate of covering the tuition fees
Over 80%
Less than 60
    Medical insurance subscribing rate
Over 80%
Less than 60%
     Language proficiency(KOR/ENG)
Over 30%
Less than 10&


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