By Mark Peterson
The friend of a friend had had surgery and was looking for some recuperation time and found out I was going to be in Korea for three weeks, and thus, I taught two, two-hour classes on Fridays at Konkuk, and two, two-hour classes on Monday at Gacheon.
The classes were all on Korean history. And three of the classes were in English, the fourth class was in Korean. All the students were foreign students.
They came from several different countries; some classes were dominated by one or two ethnic groups. One had over half the class from Uzbekistan ― and the classes were large ― three of the four were about fifty students each. The fourth, the one in Korea, had about 15 students. One class had a large Malay representation.
Konkuk was more cosmopolitan with students from the U.S., Canada, Australia, Japan, and Russia. It also had some Central Asian students. Gacheon had mostly Central Asians, Mongolians, Chinese, Myanmarese, and a Jordanian.
I was quite amazed by the numbers of students and the numbers of countries represented. I once talked with some Chinese students about five years ago and found they were not all that happy studying in Korea, but these students all seemed to be quite happy in their respective programs. Some were here for a semester or a year exchange, but most were here for the full, four-year degree program. One American student from Michigan came as an exchange student, but has decided to transfer to Konkuk to finish her degree in Korea.
It's probably unnecessary to remind the reader that Korea was once the net importer of education ― meaning Korean students were going overseas for training.
Now Korea is the exporter of education. Education is the only product that is "imported" by sending students out of the country, and conversely ― true of Korea today ― education is the only product that is "exported" by bringing students into the country to study.
I realized the United States exported education by bring students in when several years ago I discovered how American universities lobbied the government to liberalize its policies toward visas for foreign students to study in the US. The "exportation" of American knowledge is by the importation of students. I showed the American government figured that out when I was the Fulbright Director in Korea and saw how actively American universities argued that allowing students in brought money and support for universities. This occurred in the US in the 80s or so, as universities were struggling to keep up with a decline in population growth. Now, Korean universities are in the same fix, declining student populations, and the secret is to import students.
But it's more than filling up what might be a decline in numbers of students. It's the exportation of knowledge ― Korean, university-level expertise. The students from Central Asia and Southeast Asia particular told me that they were following Korean developmental models, and that Korea was a role model for economic development.
Will Korea benefit from a "brain drain?" One of the by-products of the United States policy of "exporting education" by importing students has been that the best and the brightest are often recruited to stay on in America in our research labs, universities, hospitals, and businesses. Will these better and brighter foreign students be recruited into Korean research labs, universities, hospitals, and businesses? Will multi-culturalism in the universities lead to multi-culturalism in wider society? The importation of labor has been tightly controlled, and has not really led to multi-culturalism in Korean society. "International marriage" has ― the children are growing up Korean with dual ethinicities. Will foreign students become a source of immigration and a welcomed development in Korea?
Korea is leaving the unitary culture model behind. That train has left the station.
We don't hear Koreans bragging about its "pure" or ethnically unitary culture as much these days. Will there be a backlash? Of course. There always is ― look at Europe today, and the United States as well. Dealing with multi-cultural issues is not always easy. And while most recognize the positive influx of better and brighter students and eventually better and brighter citizens, there will be some bumps in the road ahead. But it looks like Korea is traveling that road.
Mark Peterson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor emeritus of Korean, Asian and Near Eastern languages at Brigham Young University in Utah.