Songdo global campus has niche clients
This is the second of a two-part article on the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ). In this article, The Korea Times looks at the future of the IFEZ based on the major projects that are underway. Previously, The Korea Times ran a story overviewing of the past and present of the port city of Incheon.
By Kang Hyun-kyung
INCHEON ― Korea, along with China and India, ranks as one of the top three nations sending the highest number of students to the United States to study at primary and secondary schools and universities.
The demand for U.S. degrees here is higher than that of other nations in the world, explaining partly why the country has a higher student population enrolled in U.S. educational institutions than any other nation does.
The trend of Koreans in favor of U.S. degrees came across the minds of the architects of the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ) based in the reclaimed city of Songdo, southwest of Incheon.
It would be mutually beneficial for both universities and students if Koreans or even students from other Asian nations could be allowed to pursue U.S. degree programs in a location like Songdo where living expenses are cheaper, but the quality of education equals their campuses in America.
There are niche clients here for the U.S. universities, and accordingly school authorities don't need to take a world tour to attract prospective students, according to the Incheon metropolitan government.
They put their idea into action by going ahead with setting aside a district in the brand new city of Songdo, dubbed Campus Town.
"We had to convince our business partners, mostly U.S. university authorities to believe that opening an overseas campus in the international business district will not be a waste of money as demand for U.S. degrees is high here," a local government official said, asking not to be named.
He added that he knew how the negotiations went but was not in a position to represent the city.
Representatives of the IFEZ also had to make a compelling case for why the venue of their offshore campus should be Songdo, which they recalled was a tough job to do.
"We presented U.S. government data which said that more than 100,000 Korean students are attending schools there, and this indicates that Koreans prefer U.S. degrees over those of any other nation," the official said.
According to the U.S. government, 108,376 Korean students are now enrolled in schools there, making it second in terms of the number of students registered in schools in America, following China.
Korea had topped the list for three consecutive years until last year.
Their sales pitch for Songdo as an ideal place for U.S. universities' offshore campuses worked.
This year the University of North Carolina and the State University of New York at Stony Brook, are welcoming students for the fall semester at their Songdo campus.
Next year, the University of Delaware and George Mason University are scheduled to open classes there.
The offshore campuses are located in a Global University Campus zone occupying 295,000 square meters. This cluster is based on a shared network of facilities such as libraries, student union buildings and gymnasiums. On-campus dorms, staff and faculty quarters and guest houses are also available.
Despite the accomplishment, some experts raised doubt over the sustainable operation of the offshore campuses in the educational and research cluster near the subway station Campus Town.
According to them, the city's infrastructure is not favorable for foreigners and this would discourage them from visiting or staying there for long.
An official from the Ministry of Knowledge Economy pointed out many frequent modifications of the blue print for the brand new city regarding its main functions and relatively poor living environment made it difficult for the enclaves to attract foreign direct investments (FDI).
He made the remark at the seminar held in 2006 to discuss the present and the likely prospects for the FEZs in Korea.
But some experts say it was too early to evaluate their performance as the first three, including IFEZ, had not been designated by the central government until 2003.
The relatively disappointing level of FDI in the first phase (2003 to 2009) of the 17-year project was natural, saying the first six years were a learning period.
To provide better living conditions for the foreign workforce in the international business district, the Incheon metropolitan government introduced a new concept for the city, dubbed Smart City, to Songdo.
Under the plan, the city is building an urban space that has it all for its dwellers. All activities of residents will take place within a five-minute drive.
The local government elaborated that the new concept of the city is appealing and creative to experts, companies and institutions and its pleasant living and working environment creating added value.
In addition to city dwellers, the target clients of the Smart City also include tourists or visitors who plan to come for leisure and sightseeing.
Officials of the IFEZ believe that such upscale infrastructure will make it a lot easier for them to attract professionals, researchers, academics and students to come there to work, live and lead a quality life.
In addition to universities, they aim to attract global and local businesses, world-class research institutes, hospitals and international organizations in the business district.
Several zones with different purposes have been set aside in the brand new city. They include the bio and medical clusters, education and research facilities, the global business sector, and leisure and tourism clusters.
With the state-of-the-art facilities, Songdo seeks to position itself as the Northeast Asian hub for international business when construction ends in 2020.
Conventional wisdom about the main function of urban spaces says that the downtown area is for work, whereas the suburbs are for relaxing and sleep.
City dwellers are engaged in business and various work-related activities on weekdays in the downtown area while living and spending time on the weekends in the suburbs.
This is the case of Manhattan and the suburbs of New Jersey in the United States. The relationship between downtown Seoul and Ilsan or with other satellite cities also reflects this conventional wisdom.
Architects of the IFEZ noted that the trend has been shifting over the past decade.
"The new generation doesn't want such cities any more. The needs of today are forcing the world's mega cities to transform themselves into compact cities. These are going to be creative cities that will attract one person households, a new form of family and experts," the metropolitan administration said in a press release.
To meet the rising demand for convenience-oriented living conditions, urban planners further came up with the concept of the state-of-the-art energy saving, green city.
The new city paradigm provides combined services based on wired and wireless communication grids aligned with the Internet and smartphones, including communication, transportation, public water pipes, electricity, fire fighting, safety and medical services in real time, according to the city.
City officials have learned that attracting foreign investment is indeed a challenging feat. They said regulations imposed by the central government made it even more difficult for them to convince global businesses or research institutes to consider Songdo as a location for their new branches or research arms.
Two years ago, several lawmakers submitted to the National Assembly a set of bills aimed at easing regulations that have been applied to investments on foreign hospitals and schools in FEZs.
These bills are still pending at a parliamentary committee. Lawmakers didn't read those measures because civic groups and liberal politicians opposed easing regulations on foreign hospitals and schools.
IFEZ officials said that the unfavorable environment is a barrier to attracting foreign investment.