SOUTH KOREA: Degrees taught in English to continue

South Korean university degrees taught in English will continue as part of the country's globalisation efforts, even though learning in another tongue may be stressful for some local students, a Korean vice-minister for education told University World News last week.

According to some reports, between a fifth and two fifths of all courses at most Korean universities are taught via the English medium, with universities vying with each other to announce more courses taught in English to attract students in a market where demographic decline is making it harder to fill seats.

However, the growing number of degree-level courses taught in the English language at Korean universities has been questioned after a spate of suicides at the Korean Advanced Institute for Science and Technology (KAIST), where courses were delivered only in English.

Studies into the suicides, conducted this year, showed that while it was not the sole reason for the suicides of four students and a professor at the institution, KAIST students had come under huge pressure while learning in a foreign language. Some professors at KAIST had also boycotted the 'English only' teaching policy.

"While the universities are autonomous and it is their decision, we will continue to support universities that want to teach [degrees] in English," Seol Dong-Geun, South Korea's First Vice-minister for Education, told University World News.

However, in an indication that the policy of teaching in English at universities may not be pushed to the hilt, he added: "I don't think every student has to be a 'global talent'. It may be appropriate to focus on students likely to be working globally and not to stress-out young people who don't necessarily want to work internationally," Seol said, pointing out that KAIST was already revising its policy of teaching only in English.

Embattled KAIST president, Suh Nam-pyo, recently said alternatives to English would be available for some subjects.

But Seol, the vice-minister, said there was no question of abandoning English-medium courses in Korea's universities altogether.

"We have a lot of incoming students who are doing joint degrees so it is natural for this [English language teaching] to be happening. We are also making a lot of efforts to nurture global higher education, including through Campus Asia," he said.

Under the Campus Asia scheme announced in April 2010, students from South Korea, China and Japan will be able to study in each other's countries with course credits recognised by their home universities.

By October the universities involved in Campus Asia will be selected, and they will offer degrees taught in English, Seol said. He was speaking at the margins of a meeting of education ministers in Hong Kong this week.

The government has been pushing a globalisation agenda and universities seeking to expand English-medium courses have been criticised for being more concerned about proving their globalisation credentials than about quality education and the well-being of students.

South Korean universities are also expanding the number of international programmes and exchanges with overseas universities, and bringing in foreign professors, in order to become more international and rise up international university rankings.

But students say that while some professors from overseas speak good English, most lectures are delivered by Korean professors in 'poor' English.

"It's tough and painful for students and professors alike," said Daniel Suh, a professor of economics and finance at Pohang University of Science and Technology.

Writing in a local newspaper commentary last week, Suh argued: "It's an intense, short-term pain at a young age, but it brings lifelong gains. It also is an effective way to make up for a decade of lost opportunity of training for effective English communication, and to equip our willing and capable students with an essential tool for their future global leadership and for the nation's global competitiveness.

"After college, students enter the job market, where English proficiency is a major requirement particularly for Korean companies with businesses and tens of thousands of Korean employees overseas engaged in exporting, importing and investment equivalent in size to the national GDP," Suh added, admitting that a majority of Korean students at his institution preferred to speak and write in Korean.

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