From where I sit: Slide and prejudice

December 10, 2009

It is often said that people who are troubled by prejudice should not teach in South Korea, because discrimination afflicts all levels of education there.

What seems certain is that South Korean universities are finding it increasingly difficult to fill vacant positions with properly qualified foreign faculty, and I believe this is because they are failing to treat overseas staff fairly.

South Korea is involved in a big national push to recruit more academics from overseas in order to internationalise its campuses and improve its standing in world league tables. But the 2009 Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings show that it has a long way to go.

The highest-rated South Korean institution (47th), Seoul National University, scores only 29 out of 100 for the proportion of international staff and 33 out of 100 for the proportion of overseas students on campus.

The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, ranked second in the country and 69th overall, scores 47 for international staff and just 31 for foreign students.

Pohang University of Science and Technology, ranked third domestically and 134th overall, scores 50 for international staff and 19 for students.

Although my foreign colleagues and I are for the most part content with the conditions for foreign instructors at our institution, Korea University, this certainly does not appear to be the case at most South Korean institutions.

Across the sector, the average foreigner's pay falls significantly below the national average, while their standard lecture hours are frequently twice those of local staff.

At one of the post-secondary institutions I worked for, an American colleague with a PhD was told that he was entitled only to the "foreigner" salary, roughly 50 per cent of the Korean starting salary. Worse still, our Indian colleagues are paid even less than us Westerners.

It should be evident to the sector that as well as measures looking at international staff and students on campus, 40 per cent of the overall score in the 2009 Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings methodology was based on a survey of academic opinion.

If such a high proportion of Times Higher Education's new rankings in 2010 is based on a reputational survey, South Korean institutions risk sliding down the table by creating a negative impression through their discriminatory practices.

So they must start treating foreign students and faculty with the same respect afforded to local people. This would undoubtedly go a long way to raising foreign staff and student scores.

If they fail to do so, they will find their reputations as well as their rankings falling far behind the nation's aspirations for its higher education sector.

Moreover, in today's world, where all aspects of university life are put on unrestrained international view, it is essential that university administrators and faculty start acting without bias, not only for the sake of international rankings, but also to become truly globalised.

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