Row over ‘discriminatory’ hike in foreign student fees

A plan by a major public university in Seoul to double tuition fees for incoming foreign students from next year has angered students, who say the university administration is attempting to push through discriminatory policies at a time when it is difficult for students to protest due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

After a tuition fee review held last month at the University of Seoul, a public university partly subsidised by the Seoul municipal government, a decision was made to increase fees by 100% for incoming foreign undergraduate students and by 20% for foreign graduate students.

The university currently has around 580 foreign students, according to 2020 figures.

A statement issued jointly by current and foreign students at the university last month pointed out that foreign students are not eligible for national scholarships and many have to work to pay their fees.

Local students also opposed the argument put forward by some that foreign students should pay more because they do not pay taxes, saying that promoting the ‘beneficiary pays’ argument could lead to a push to increase fees for Korean students as well further down the road.

Local and foreign students at the university have paid the same fees until now of around KRW1 million (US$880) per semester for an undergraduate humanities or social sciences course. This is less than half the fees charged by other universities in the city due to taxpayer-funded municipal subsidies.

A university spokesperson said the 100% increase would put undergraduate fees in the humanities and social sciences “on par with other public and national universities” in the country.

The university argues that fees had been frozen for a decade. Last year the university attempted to increase fees for foreign students and incoming local students citing inflation and reduced revenue, but did not push it through due to opposition from local and foreign students.

Better services for foreign students

Students said the University of Seoul also claimed that increasing fees would enable the university to provide better educational services, including language and cultural classes. According to records of the university’s tuition fee committee meeting on 11 June, the university decided to extend more support to foreign students after conducting a university survey in January.

At some other universities, particularly some private universities that have increased fees for foreign students, this includes more lectures in English, which are rarely attended by local students.

Foreign students say they have had particular problems with online classes during the pandemic, which they say hinder communication with professors. “We are already facing problems with classes, and with keeping our jobs to support our studies,” said a student from Thailand.

Students put up posters at the university campus in mid-June saying that the university was taking advantage of foreign students not being able to protest the decision to push through the foreign fee increases.

An Indonesian student told University World News it was difficult for foreign students to air their problems with university management. “Foreign students are not represented in student councils because it requires proficiency in the language to sit on committees. We rely on local students to support us. Luckily, they have shown great solidarity.”

The issue of tuition fee increases is also sensitive generally while students from a number of universities are demanding tuition fee refunds due to substandard teaching in online classes from last year.

Earlier this year, the prestigious Seoul National University announced it would raise both undergraduate and graduate fees by 1.2%, citing the need to fund additional scholarships for low-income students, but the university had to cancel the plan due to strong protests by local students.

Foreign fee rises since 2016

After government policy to freeze tuition fees was changed in December 2016 so that the stringent tuition fee cap no longer applied to foreign students recruited outside the university student quota system, a number of universities brought in yearly increases from 2017 onwards of around 5% to 10% in foreign student fees.

They included Chung-Ang University, Sogang University, Sungkyunkwan University, Ewha Womans University and Hanyang University.

However, some, like Korea University in Seoul, proposed and then reversed proposals to hike fees for foreign students, fearing in part that the student backlash could lead to a drop in foreign students applying to the university, particularly after many foreign students dropped out or took a leave of absence last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to a drop in fee income.

Some professors also voiced fears that it could create divisions between local and foreign students on campus, which would be detrimental to the overall university environment.

In November last year, a decision by Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul to increase fees for foreign students by 6% for the 2021 academic year led to student protests, saying it discriminated against foreign students and had led to conflicts between domestic and foreign students during discussions.

Hankuk University had said that the entire fee increase would go towards “welfare and scholarships” for foreign students but did not provide a specific plan, student representatives at the university said. The university administration said the fee hike was not because the university was facing financial difficulties but because it wanted to “invest in foreign students”.

The increase was voted down by all four members of the student council, but the plan was approved by the four university staff members and an external member appointed by the university.

Foreign students say they already face additional burdens over a new health insurance scheme that imposed monthly premiums of KRW40,000 (US$35) on foreign students from March this year, with increases slated for next year and the year after.

However, Korea’s National Health Insurance Service said the hike would mean foreign students could receive the same health benefits as Koreans. For students, the insurance premiums are set at 30% of KRW131,789 (US$115), the average insurance premium paid by foreigners in Korea in 2019, but would rise to 50% of the average premium within two years.

A Vietnamese student told the Korean news agency Yonhap that they would not be able to get their student visa extended without health insurance.

Around 154,000 foreign students are enrolled in universities in South Korea, primarily from China and Southeast Asian countries.