English courses could attract more international students

English is the reigning bridge language or lingua franca in nearly all human endeavours that cross national borders. A nation’s education sector is no exception. Preparatory English instruction and its subsequent use as the Mode of Instruction, or MoI, in a nation’s educational policy and institutional curricula may serve as expressions of its commitment to globalisation.

There are many possible manifestations of a nation’s and its education sector’s implementation of a globalisation strategy. At the university level, a continuum might be bounded at each end by little or no use to complete reliance on English as the MoI. The implementations of Korean universities provide a snapshot of that continuum.

Korea’s commitment to widespread English proficiency appears to be anchored in its common school curricula. Its public schools provide English instruction from grade three through secondary school. This foundation is said to prepare students seeking university admission.

High scores on the College Scholastic Ability Test, or CSAT, which includes a rigorous English component, are requisites for admission to many of Korea’s elite universities. Earning high marks on the English section, however, may not suggest either sufficient proficiency or a disposition to use the language after admission to the preferred university.

Critics have observed that English programmes as delivered in public elementary, middle and high schools may not be well-aligned for CSAT success nor do they necessarily develop language proficiency.

In response, a few parents send their children to English-speaking countries for an immersion experience as part of their schooling. A large number of the remaining parents with college aspirations for their offspring send them to after-school English programmes offered by private for-profit schools or Hagwons to reinforce what they are learning at public school.

Presumably, there should be a large cohort of indigenous students entering university with a relatively high level of English proficiency. That is not necessarily the case.

Some Korean faculty critics have long noted that the added difficulty of teaching and learning an already difficult tertiary level subject in a non-mother tongue with varying levels of proficiency and-or disposition does not promote efficient learning. One might speculate that faculty and student dispositions may even trump proficiency.

Even a high proficiency in any alternative language is not necessarily accompanied by a strong desire or comfort level to employ it in a competitive classroom. Student surveys report that many do not feel well prepared to succeed in an English MoI.

Teaching in English

On the other hand, some universities are better prepared than others to offer courses in English. An individual institution’s percentage of English MoI courses is likely to be influenced by five complementary factors:
  • • Institutions with strong programmes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, business and other curricula that lead to employment in the global economy may hold a strong appeal for both international and Korean students.
  • • Institutions with a high international ranking appear to attract a large portion of foreign exchange and transfer students. As noted in an earlier University World News article, filling seats is important. With Korea’s long term low birth rate, international students fill seats that would otherwise be empty.
  • • A cadre of native English speakers as well as a critical mass of indigenous faculty capable of and comfortable with teaching in English is essential. Again, a high international profile may be helpful in attracting English proficient international and indigenous faculty.
  • • Student services calibrated to the needs of a diverse student body is also a plus.
  • • Some institutions incentivise their indigenous students to enrol in English MoI courses. The Korea Herald, an English language paper, reported in 2014 that some universities require their Korean students to enrol in a minimum number of English MoI classes as a graduation requirement.
In combination, these factors form the requisite foundation for the numbers of English MoI courses at any one institution. English as a mode of instruction appears alive and well at many Korean universities.

On average, English-only lectures are said to account for about one-third of the total number of lectures at Korean universities. Korean university websites reflect varying levels of English diffusion.

Of the 201 Korean universities there is a small but growing number of institutions offering their entire curricula in English. Generally, they tend to be relatively new institutions with globally oriented missions that drive their MoI language choice.

It may be that relatively young institutions with their cultures still in formation may find it easier to recruit and orient faculty and students already disposed to English as the MoI than to change the dispositions of existing faculty and student cohorts.

Korean elite universities, located in Seoul and other large urban centres that are attractive to international students, tend to offer significant numbers of English MoI courses. When coupled with English proficient and disposed Korean students, multiple critical masses are formed that permit the increase of English MoI-based degrees.

International students who are interested in an excellent northeast Asia learning experience, but are not Korean proficient, have access to a wide and growing array of institutions in Korea.

A visit to their websites will readily allow the international student shopper to begin a serious exploration of the offering and, perhaps more importantly, the faculty teaching these courses. They should note that while an institution may offer a degree programme with English as the MoI, Korean may be the MoI in lower division courses.

Korea is a great country to pursue very high quality baccalaureate programmes and beyond in English.

William Patrick Leonard is a professor at SolBridge International School of Business, Daejeon, Republic of Korea.