[News analysis] Why a Korean university kicked international students out of the country

Posted on : 2023-12-27 09:33 KST Modified on : 2023-12-27 09:33 KST
As the Korean government and local schools try to attract more foreign students, some say that a lack of coordination between relevant ministries and schools is leading to cases like that at Hanshin University
“Shameful” reads a message on a phone held by a Hanshin University student participating in a prayer gathering at the school’s Gyeonggi campus in Osan on Dec. 13 to denounce the forced expulsion of international students from the country. (Shin So-young/The Hankyoreh)
“Shameful” reads a message on a phone held by a Hanshin University student participating in a prayer gathering at the school’s Gyeonggi campus in Osan on Dec. 13 to denounce the forced expulsion of international students from the country. (Shin So-young/The Hankyoreh)

Hanshin University’s forcible ejection of 22 international students who were enrolled the school’s Korean language institute to their home country of Uzbekistan has been met with shock and outrage.

The school rationalized its behavior by stating that the local immigration office, run by the Ministry of Justice, asked for the students’ bank balance certificates, but most of the students did not meet the conditions of their stay. “We were worried that if we informed them, they would run away and become illegal immigrants,” the school said.

This suggests that the university was worried that if the students became undocumented in the country, the school would be disadvantaged in future recruitment of international students.

Is successfully recruiting international students so important to universities that they will stoop so low as to force people out of the country? Experts say that indiscriminate recruitment of international students, which often serves as a fix for schools’ financial problems, and weak government support are two of the underlying causes of this most recent scandal.

Why so sensitive over illegal immigration rates?

As the Hanshin University case demonstrates, the “illegal residency rate” is a sensitive subject for universities that host international students. This rate determines how successful a school will be in attracting international students.

Every year, the Ministry of Education conducts a survey on the recruitment and management of international students as well as another survey called the “International Education Quality Assurance System” to encourage universities to manage the quality of their international students. The most important basic requirement is the illegal residency rate.

Depending on the size of the university, if the percentage of undocumented immigrants in degree programs or language training is less than 2% to 4%, the university becomes certified as having “high capabilities for globalized education” and benefits from a simplified student visa issuance process.

On the other hand, if the percentage exceeds 10%, the university may be designated as an institute advised to restrict international student recruitment and be restricted from new student visa issuance for a year.

The current system requires universities to manage the residency issues of international students on their own, even if they lack the professional knowledge to do so.

An individual in charge of international exchange at a university outside of the greater Seoul area said that while Hanshin University’s treatment of the 22 Uzbek students was “problematic and possibly illegal,” universities are obligated to be concerned about the illegal sojourn rate.

“Universities are not enforcement agencies, and it is difficult to completely determine whether an international student has come to South Korea for the sake of studying or not even if the universities follow standard procedures to determine the intentions of students,” the official said.

A fix for financial ills

Despite the difficulties in managing residency issues, the number of international students (including language students) in South Korea has nearly doubled over the last 10 years, from 86,878 in 2012 to 166,892 in 2022. Many analysts believe that this is the result of universities trying to make up for their financial difficulties by attracting international students, who are not subject to the same tuition regulations as domestic students.

In South Korea, where government funding for higher education is particularly low, tuition and student enrollment are critical to university finances. However, undergraduate tuition at most universities has remained flat for 14 years due to the Ministry of Education’s policy of providing Type II National Scholarships only to universities that have frozen or reduced their tuition rates.

Universities in the greater Seoul metro aren’t able to increase their student body size due to quota regulations, while universities outside of the capital area have difficulty recruiting domestic students due to the decline in the school-age population.

According to a report by the Korea Higher Education Research Institute titled “Study on Declining Student Enrollment and Methods toward Financial Stability of Private Universities,” undergraduate tuition revenue at general universities fell from 8.28 trillion won in 2015 to 7.759 trillion won in 2021, a 6.4% decrease despite inflation.

In the case of private universities outside of the Seoul area, 74 out of 91 (81.3%) had operating deficits as of 2021. (Korean Council for University Education, “Analysis of University Tuition and Private University Operating Loss and Profits”)

That’s why universities regard foreign students — who are outside of the student quota system and aren’t subject to restrictions on tuition hikes — as a way to fix their finances.

According to an analysis by the Korea Higher Education Research Institute, only 17 (8.8%) of 193 state-run, public and private universities (including general universities, vocational schools and teacher training schools) raised tuition for Korean undergraduate students in 2023, but 69 (35.8%) of those same universities raised tuition either for graduate students or for foreign undergraduate students.

Tuition is relatively affordable for students at Korean language institutes, but many universities plan to recruit some of those students to study in their undergraduate programs following their Korean language instruction.

“The long-running freeze on tuition makes it impossible for universities to raise revenue through ordinary ways. Raising money from a language program and recruiting foreign students are being treated as ways to compensate for the budget deficit,” said Song Gi-chang, the president of Sung San Hyo University and former professor of education at Sookmyung Women’s University.

“When universities are banned from recruiting foreign students [because some have overstayed their sojourn], that frustrates their efforts to improve their finances,” Song said.

The dream and reality of 300,000 foreign students

With universities preoccupied with complying with government policy and raising the quality of foreign students, they seem unable to offer any meaningful ways to improve those students’ living conditions in Korea.

A plan for making Korea a more competitive destination for foreign students (called the “Study Korea 300K Project”) released by Korea’s Ministry of Education in August has the goal of bringing in 300,000 foreign students by 2027, which would make Korea one of the world’s top-ten destinations for studying abroad.

The chief plank of that plan is to lower the entry barriers for foreign students by easing language requirements. When it comes to those students’ living conditions, the plan would raise the cap on weekly working hours from 25 to 30. After graduation, foreign students would also be connected with jobs in the manufacturing sector, where many Koreans are reluctant to work, to encourage them to settle down in Korea.

Since government programs are more concerned with bringing in more students than with helping them adapt to life in Korea, an increasing number of foreign students are failing in their studies.

According to data analyzed by Lee Tae-kyu, a lawmaker with the People Power Party, the number of foreign students at four-year undergraduate programs who dropped out without completing their studies rose from 4,770 in 2019 to 7,072 in 2022. In addition, the number of foreign students who become undocumented migrants after their studies instead of going back to their home countries increased from 21,970 in 2019 to 36,067 in 2022.

The Korean government has also been criticized for not having a consistent policy on foreign student recruitment and management, leading to confusion for university administrators.

That issue was addressed by the Korean Educational Development Institute in a 2020 report titled “An Analysis of Universities’ Recruitment and Management of Foreign Students.

“The Ministry of Education has focused aggressively on bringing over more foreign students, even as the Ministry of Justice has adopted a defensive posture of keeping out illegal aliens and protecting the labor market as its basic policy goal. That leads to discord between relevant ministries’ goals for the same policy and creates confusion for university staff who are puzzling out the details,” the report said.

By Kim Min-je, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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