Universities English-Friendly Policy Has Pros and Cons
By Do Je-hae
Some Korean universities are eagerly pursuing the establishment of English-language campuses as a measure to improve their global competitiveness.
It may seem like an unlikely concept to be applied to Korea, a country that is linguistically homogeneous. But more universities see it as a crucial step toward raising their international status and attracting foreign talent.
The presidents of the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) and Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) each recently went public with their intention to have all aspects of campus life conducted mainly in English.
This means that students will be take classes, write reports and take exams in English, regardless of their majors. All school administration affairs will be handled in English as well.
Both UNIST and POSTECH are hoping to take after Asia's top universities such as the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology (HKUST), an 18-year-old school that is already increasingly considered one of the most prestigious universities in Asia.
The Times Higher Education in its 2009 edition ranked HKUST 35th worldwide and 26th in technology. The university's business school's MBA program was ranked first in Asia, and 9th worldwide by the Financial Times.
While HKUST and other universities in Hong Kong, as well as those in Singapore and Japan, placed highly in the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings published last year, no Korean university managed to make it into the top 40.
One reason for this is their lack of global competitiveness, particularly in terms of English proficiency on campus.
``Universities will face limitations in global competition unless they are fully comfortable with English,'' UNIST President Cho Moo-je said.
He cited English proficiency as the secret to the success of universities in Hong Kong and Singapore.
Located in the nation's signature industrial city of Ulsan, the school placed high priority on nurturing an English-friendly campus.
It has given English-only lectures since its establishment in 2009, with the aim of becoming the Korean version of HKUST within the next ten years.
Cho has said that English lectures are essential for students to climb to the top in the scientific and technology fields, encouraging students to prepare for lessons in advance and review what they learned.
UNIST aims to recruit foreign students and professors until they represent 20 percent of the total number of students and faculty, respectively.
However, there is the criticism that reinforcing the use of English may lead to miscommunication between students and professors or administrative staff.
As a young school that has consistently operated on the English-only principle since its founding, UNIST is expecting little opposition from the students and faculty with regard to plans for an ``English campus.''
The school is planning to conduct all school affairs in English within the next three years.
POSTECH, one of the most prestigious institutes of higher learning in Korea, announced similar plans recently.
From March, it will conduct all courses in English and require all students to speak only English on campus.
``This is to attract foreign professors and students. We will ensure that they do not to have any problems while living here,'' a school official said.
Under the plan, 45 percent of the university's professors will be foreign nationals by next year. To reach its goal, the university this year began to hire equal numbers of Korean and foreign academics.
Currently, there are 31 foreign professors, representing 7.1 percent of the total teaching faculty at POSTECH. Around 2.2 percent of the students in the graduate program are international students.
``We need to create an environment where people from all over the world can come to our school for research and education without any hindrances. To that end, adopting English as a main language of communication is essential,'' POSTECH President Baik Sung-gi said.
The school will establish a mandatory policy to hire staff with proficiency in English.
Some students and professors have been hesitant about such plans, citing problems in communication that may result due to the language barrier.
Through its globalization plan, POSTECH is hoping to become one of the top 50 universities in the world by 2013.
The need to improve the general level of English fluency at Korean universities has been consistently been raised, especially as Korea's university education has been hit for lacking competitiveness.
An OCED report rated Korea 51st among 57 countries in its index of university competitiveness.
Despite this, universities here are still charging some of the highest tuition fees among OECD countries.
To improve the quality of education and raise their global status, Korean universities have been eager to attract renowned scholars but have had difficulty in retaining them, largely owing to language and cultural differences.
Some foreign professors have said that they face difficulties in dealing with official documents from schools because they are in Korean.
Critics of the push for English campuses say that the examples from Hong Kong and Singapore are not applicable to Korea. Unlike the two countries, Korea is linguistically homogeneous and has never adopted English as a second language.
Some experts say that globalization is not necessarily associated with English proficiency.
Ravi Kumar, the dean of the KAIST Business School in Seoul stresses that globalization doesn't necessarily mean using English. ``I am learning Korean with our foreign students in Korean language classes. Internationalism doesn't mean English. It means multilingualism,'' he said in a recent interview with The Korea Times.
``Students and faculty members need to learn how to respect other cultures and communicate with people around the world. We have a long way to go to achieve globalization,'' he added.