South Korea: Foreign faculty blues

EducationWorld June 16 | EducationWorld

Since the turn of the millennium, South Korean universities have been trying to improve their research capabilities by attracting scholars from around the world to shake up a somewhat insular education system. But a study has found that in at least one of the country’s top institutions, foreign faculty feel disempowered and usually leave a few years after being recruited, raising questions about how successfully Korean universities and other Asian institutions are integrating their growing cohorts 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 inaugurated in 2006 by the prestigious Seoul-based Yonsei University. She discovered a dispiriting picture of life as an international member of staff at Yonsei.

Senior managers came from other departments and academic units, leaving one interviewee to say there is a “feeling amongst faculty that the central administration dictates what’s going to happen without consulting us”. For example, in 2011 the 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.

Without connections, foreign faculty feel that there’s 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 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 varsities have established a quota system that allows a department only a certain number of new hires from those with alumni connections,” she explains, but adds that it’s unclear whether this would help foreign faculty. In her study, Kim indicates 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.

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