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Korea opens up to foreign providers

South Korea’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has announced plans to open up the market further to international providers by easing restrictions on foreign investors and creating an international education hub in Songdo International Business District just outside Seoul in Incheon.

Songdo International Business District, where the government plans to create an international education hub. Photo: Dongho Kim.

"The foreign universities in Songdo are, to be honest, less prestigious than those domestic universities from Korean perspective"

With a US$4bn deficit caused by the high proportion of university students opting to pursue studies abroad, the ministry hopes that allowing Korean students to study at top foreign institutions for a much lower cost than overseas will provide an incentive to study in-country.

The initiative also includes measures to boost the number of incoming foreign students, including lowering the Korean language requirement from Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK) Level 3 to Level 2, and allowing private schools and academies to issue D-4 (General Training) visas, currently only available to public or higher education institutions.

“Negotiations to host three prestigious colleges [in Songdo] are underway”

The plans to create a community of international universities in Songdo were revealed at the government’s meeting for the trade and investment promotion committee in Seoul this month.

“Negotiations to host three prestigious colleges [in Songdo] are underway,” an Education Ministry official said. “The government also plans to increase the subsidy for education institutes with excellent performance, providing incentives for the schools to invest in Korea.”

Institutions undergoing negotiations include the Fashion Institute of Technology at the State University of New York and a number of specialised colleges are interested in expanding to Korea, according to the Ministry.

Cooperation between universities at Songdo will be encouraged through a credit transfer system allowing students to take classes at institutions other than their own.

To make foreign university campuses more attractive male students will be allowed to delay their mandatory military service until after their studies, as they can for domestic institutions, in cooperation with the Ministry of National Defence.

Responding to claims by the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission that some incoming students are forging the documents they are required to submit in lieu of sitting the College Scholastic Ability Test, the Suneung, the Ministry has outlined methods to crackdown on fraudulent applicants.

Under the proposed policy, higher education institutions would have to cross-reference applications with the Korean Council for University Education.

“Almost all universities in Korea are now suffering financially. They have neither energy nor money to spare for investing”

However, some are sceptical about the quality of incoming institutions, despite assurances that only prestigious foreign universities will be allowed to take root in Korea.

“The foreign universities in Songdo are, to be honest, less prestigious than those domestic universities from Korean perspective,” Ki-jeong Lee, Vice President for International Affairs at Hanyang University in Seoul, told The PIE News.

There is also some concern that an influx of foreign universities could drive up tuition fees. On average, fees at the five foreign-based universities already in Korea are around three times the state-controlled 6.67m won (US$6,512) charged by domestic institutions.

Lee told The PIE News that these financial restrictions may dampen interest in international partnerships.

“I don’t think that universities in Korea are interested in the partnerships with the foreign universities in Songdo,” he commented. “Almost all universities in Korea are now suffering financially due to the fact that government has been controlling the tuition. They have neither energy nor money to spare for investing.”

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