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Language barrier leads to campus tensions

May 13,2019
The increasing number of international students at universities is bringing with it some growing pains.

The number of foreign students in universities in Korea doubled from 2014 to 2018, boosting the international image of some universities. However, some Korean students are finding problems getting along with international students, especially in regard to their Korean language ability.

“Some of them don’t speak Korean at all, and I’ve met some who have been uncooperative in group projects,” said a fourth-year student at Kyung Hee University in eastern Seoul surnamed Park.

The number of international students enrolled in universities in Korea has nearly doubled from 2014 to 2018, from 57,675 to 99,714, according to records kept by the Korean Council for University Education.

Korea University in central Seoul had the most international students last year, at 4,850, followed by 4,626 at Kyung Hee University, 3,853 at Sungkyunkwan University in central Seoul, 3,140 in Yonsei University in western Seoul, and 2,519 in Chung-Ang University in southern Seoul.

The problem, some experts said, is the lax management of international students.

“The requirements that these international students need to meet in order to enroll in universities has been quite low,” said Park Ju-ho, professor of education at Hanyang University in eastern Seoul. “And there isn’t a standardized management system for these international students once they have been admitted. It is time for universities across Korea to review their international student policies and fix them as needed.”

“The current management system has not been effective,” said a third-year student surnamed Yoon at Korea University. “Because Korean students see international students as a group to avoid, they have not been able to mix well with the local crowd on campus.”

The Ministry of Education has requested that universities require foreign students to pass at least level 3 in the Test of Proficiency in Korean (Topik) to be admitted to Korean universities and pass level 4 by the time of their graduation. They also ask universities to require international students to have at least a score of 530 in the Test of English as Foreign Language (Toefl) when they are admitted.

The ministry has not done more than make a polite request, however.

According to records on nine national universities in Korea obtained by Bareunmirae Party Rep. Lee Chan-yeol, only 41.1 percent of international students enrolled at the universities met the language requirements issued by the Ministry of Education.

Only 2.4 percent of the international students in Chonnam National University in South Jeolla met the language requirements, and only 8.8 percent of the international students enrolled at Kangwon National University’s Samcheok and Dogye campuses in Gangwon met the language requirements.

“Some of the Chinese students in my class don’t speak much Korean and their handle of English seems to be worse,” said a professor at a private university in Seoul. “There should be a system to give penalties to students who do not meet certain language requirements, but there isn’t.”

Many international students also drop out before graduation. The drop-out rate for international students at one four-year university in Seoul was 40.9 percent last year. The rate at a four-year university in Gangwon was 52.2 percent.

“Universities have been accepting international students without filtering them,” Rep. Lee said. “They need to stop this.”

But for some universities, international students’ tuition has become a main source of income.

“The tuition for local students has been frozen for 10 years,” said a professor at a private university in Seoul. “Where else can the university get profit to keep running the school? Plus, the number of international students enrolled at a university counts as a plus for the university in the government assessment.”

Some experts warn that unless the situation improves, it will generate xenophobic sentiments in Korea.

“Korean students’ experiences with some international students can lead them to harbor certain racial stereotypes against them,” said Koo Jung-woo, a sociology professor at Sungkyunkwan University. “Something needs to be done soon.”

“The universities may have to look into running separate programs for international students,” said Park. “Because of the language barrier, putting the group together with local students can hurt both groups’ academic achievements.”

BY YUN SEOK-MAN, JEON MIN-HEE [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]