‘High stakes’ and hurdles ahead for KAIST’s New York campus

Entrepreneur provides funding, but questions over student interest and regulatory environment

December 17, 2021
Annual Korean Day Parade man holding American flag to illustrate ‘High stakes’ and hurdles ahead for KAIST’s New York campus
Source: Alamy

A leading South Korean university that has raised eyebrows with its plan to open a branch campus in New York will need to beat off stiff competition to succeed, scholars said.

The new outpost for the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) formed part of the institution’s “global twin strategy”, targeting domestic and global markets, said Kwang Hyung Lee, president of the university.

“New York is the centre of the world’s commerce, culture and new technologies. If we want to grow big, we should go to one of the biggest cities in the world – and New York is the place,” he said.

Many scholars noted that the unprecedented move would be a litmus test not just for KAIST, but also for the international prospects of Korean universities.

“The stakes are pretty high in that a failure or a success will be garnering a lot of attention,” said Jason Lane, professor of higher and international education at Miami University in Ohio.

It remains to be seen how much appetite there will be for the branch campus, and whether it will prove attractive to US or international students.

Professor Lane said KAIST’s plan amounted to “one of the top-ranked universities in Korea looking to open in one of the most highly competitive educational markets in the world and in a country that has proven to be difficult for many other foreign institutions to penetrate”.

Chong Yang Kim, emeritus president at Seoul’s Hanyang University and chair of its board of trustees, agreed.

“If this plan is to be successfully…implemented, it will certainly enhance KAIST’s academic reputation and financial viability,” Professor Kim told Times Higher Education, adding that other Korean institutions would be following developments in New York with an eye on their own prospects.

With South Korea facing steep population decline and already high university enrolment rates unlikely to increase, some of the country’s universities are mulling an increased international footprint as one way of boosting income.

Professor Kim said he would not rule out Hanyang expanding overseas, at the “right time” and in the “right place”.

But such efforts are still few and far between. According to the Cross-Border Education Research Team (C-BERT), of which Professor Lane is a co-founder, the only existing overseas ventures set up by Korean universities are the Ulsan Ship and Ocean College at Ludong University in China, and INHA University in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, although KAIST is already helping to set up a university modelled on itself in Kenya.

KAIST’s initiative would be the first Western branch campus set up by a Korean university.

“It makes sense for a Korean institution to target the US in general, and New York in particular,” said Professor Lane, who noted that there was already a “strong educational connection”, with four US campuses offering degrees in Korean studies and one of the world’s largest Korean diaspora communities located in New York.

He said KAIST was off to a good start, having secured funding from New York entrepreneur Hee-Nam Bae, a Korean expatriate.

Kevin Kinser, a co-founder of C-BERT and head of the department of education policy studies at Pennsylvania State University, agreed that New York could prove an attractive destination for Korean students.

But the location is not without its challenges. KAIST will need to navigate a tough regulatory environment in New York state, which is known for its “rigorous approval processes for new universities”, he said.

Regardless of where KAIST sets up shop, it will need to contend with language barriers, said Professor Kinser, who noted that an English curriculum might pose “potential limits” for native Korean speakers.


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Reader's comments (1)

KAIST in Daejeon is already a bilingual campus. Many courses are already taught in English for at least a decade now with a strong international student presence. There is also an English language craze in Korea. Although it is true that in Daejeon many native Korean KAISTians struggle with taking classes in English, I don't think it will be much of a problem.