By Park Si-soo
Seoul Metropolitan Government unveiled a plan Thursday to establish an international school in the northern part of the capital by August next year, raising the number of such institutions to 21.
By 2012, the city will add two more schools able to accommodate at least 500 students ― it also left room to establish more, if deemed necessary.
City officials said the move is part of efforts to sharpen global competitiveness and to attract more foreign investment in the capital by making it more convenient for expatriates to live in.
But critics complain the metropolitan area is already overcrowded with schools with classes run in English or other languages, and what foreign investors need is not easier access to mediocre education, but high quality courses at more affordable rates.
``I don't think that Seoul has a shortage of international schools,'' an expat who has lived here for three years with two school-age children said.
``But it should be noted that many are struggling to invite suitably qualified teachers like those that are available back home.''
The American, who refused to be named, added some small- and mid-sized schools are rudimentary in their campus environment.
About 5,500 children now attend 20 international schools in Seoul with the majority of them taking their classes in English.
Recently there has been a decrease in the number of applicants as the central government tightened criteria for enrollment.
Since late last year, it has barred some children with dual citizenship and those who were born in foreign countries, but did not stay there for more than three years, from admission to the "prestigious" schools.
The tougher regulations has set off a campaign among education-conscious parents to increase the ratio of native Korean students an international school can accommodate to 50 percent of the total from the current 30 percent.
The city's expansion plan is partially based on an annual survey on foreign investors here by the Korea Trade Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA).
One of the chronic complaints raised was the shortage of appropriate schools.
In the 2008 survey, nearly 80 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with the business environment, but 86 percent of them complained of a lack of international schools, KOTRA said.
A Seoul official admitted the concern that the city is overcrowded with such schools, but stressed it was not negative in the long run.
``At the moment, people may see it as overcrowded. But it's sort of a rite of passage to become more attractive to foreign investors,'' said Jang Young-min, deputy director of the city's competitiveness policy division.
``As proven by surveys, foreign investors see the capital as a lucrative market but the lack of facilities to educate their children is making them reluctant to make forays into Seoul. It's an investment for a bigger return.''
Schools to be constructed will be sizable enough to accommodate more than 500 students and have up-to-date support facilities.
``Existing international schools, except for a couple of subsidized ones, are small and inferior to overseas schools as a whole,'' Jang said. ``The outcry from those operating small ones is increasing since brand new schools appear to pose a grave threat to their bottom line in the future, but it is a pain they should endure in order to grow."