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Foreign academics 

in Korea: 

disempowered and 

ready to leave?

I suspect that we can see many parallels in Japan  --  

Interviews paint a bleak picture of morale at  Yonsei University, raising further concerns about country’s attempt to internationalise

By David Matthews

Since the turn of the millennium, South Korean universities have been trying to improve their research capabilities by attracting scholars from across the world to shake up a sometimes insular system.

But a study has found that in at least one of the country’s top institutions, foreign faculty are feeling disempowered and usually leave a few years after being recruited, raising questions about how successfully Korean universities and other Asian institutions are integrating their increasing numbers of international academics.

Stephanie Kim, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Korean Studies, interviewed nearly 50 faculty, administrators and students at Underwood International College (UIC), which was opened in 2006 by the prestigious Seoul-based Yonsei University.

She discovered a dispiriting picture of life as an international member of staff at Yonsei. Foreign staff were young and untenured, which meant that they could not hold senior administrative posts at their own college.

Senior managers came from other departments and academic units, leaving one interviewee to say that there was a “feeling amongst faculty that the central administration dictates what’s going to happen without consulting us”.

For example, in 2011 the main base of UIC was moved away from Yonsei’s main campus in Seoul despite faculty members and students having little desire to hold classes at the new site, Dr Kim’s interviews found.

Lacking connections from previous study at the university, international faculty were cut off from powerful networks within Yonsei, according to the study, “Western faculty ‘flight risk’ at a Korean university and the complexities of internationalisation in Asian higher education”, published in Comparative Education.

Without connections, foreign faculty felt that there was a “glass ceiling to their career prospects” at Yonsei. “If my dream was becoming dean, it would probably bother me because I think there are relatively few deanships in Yonsei that would be open to a foreign professor,” one interviewee told Dr Kim.

However, there are some signs of change to this network-driven system, Dr Kim told Times Higher Education. “Because of recent public backlash to elitism in Korean universities, some schools have established a quota system that allows a department only a certain number of new hires from those with alumni connections,” she explained, but added that it was so far unclear whether this would help foreign faculty.

The interviews suggest that Yonsei is not yet attracting those scholars with other career options. “Almost all came because they could not find a suitable academic job in the United States or another Western country,” the paper says.

Many international academics “arrive at Yonsei University only to leave within several years”, the paper found, as faculty still wanted to work at a Western university because this was seen as better for their career prospects.

Dr Kim said that the problems at Yonsei “may very likely” be replicated at other universities in South Korea, and she hoped to explore this in future research.

In her study, she suggests that the “mass departure of Western faculty members from a Korean university suggests that Asian HEIs are not actually integrating them into their faculty body in a meaningful way – implying that Westernisation is merely a strategically appropriated façade”.

Previous research, conducted by scholars from Stanford University and Yonsei, has also suggested that foreign academics are often perceived as “temporary skilled labour” and “second-tier” scholars.

South Korean government schemes drive internationalisation, but with mixed results

A number of government schemes have pushed South Korean universities to internationalise their faculty, including the World Class University Project, which began in 2008 and funded the recruitment of renowned foreign scholars, and the Brain Korea 21 Project, which from 1999 to 2006 incentivised universities to publish in the world’s top science and technology journals.

The efforts appear to be working: in 2000, just 2.4 per cent of full-time faculty in South Korea were foreigners, but by 2013 this had risen to 7.1 per cent, according to Stephanie Kim’s research.

However the country is going backwards when it comes to recruiting more international students. Numbers peaked at almost 90,000 in 2011 but have been dropping gradually since.

The South Korean Ministry of Education wants to recruit 200,000 by 2023, so that 5 per cent of its student body is international. By 2020, it will spend more than £800 million a year on foreign students.

Yet its plans to create special departments or courses purely for foreign students were criticised as “ghettoising” international students when they were announced last year.