The fashion for degree courses taught in English rather than local languages may be putting teaching quality at risk, a global higher education conference has heard.
Speaking at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha last week, Kiyong Byun, vice-director of the Higher Education Policy Research Institute at Korea University, presented the results of an analysis of recent government policy in South Korea. The state aims to encourage students and faculty to adopt English as the academic "lingua franca".
He said the findings fed into "growing concern" that courses run in English may hinder students' learning and in particular their acquisition of "subject knowledge".
The government's enthusiasm for the plan, Professor Byun said, was based on a desire to develop a domestic labour market with higher levels of "internationally oriented" skills.
The country was also hoping to attract more international students with its anglophone courses, as well as boosting academics' "language skills and confidence".
South Korea's policy requires all academics hired since August 2003 to teach in English, while those employed before that date have been offered financial incentives to study the language. Professor Byun said that many scholars felt "pressured" to comply.
In addition, all students enrolled since 2004 have been required to take at least five English-language modules before they can graduate.
In return, the government has provided financial support to help launch the courses, and has said it is more likely to award grants to institutions with a high proportion of English-language courses. Professor Byun said that this had "far-reaching implications for student learning and the way higher education is organised".
For example, the percentage of courses taught in English at Korea rose from 10 per cent in 2002 to 38 per cent in 2008, he added.
Professor Byun said that the initiative had some benefits, and that its advocates believed the gains of learning English "outweigh the 'marginal' negative impact on subject knowledge".
He also acknowledged that students "by and large" were satisfied with the courses and felt their command of English had improved.
But he argued that the policy relied on "assumed premises" about proficiency in English among students and academics, and said many did not speak the language to the required level.
He cited evidence of students complaining about class discussions held in English in which only those proficient in the language were able to keep up.
He added that lecturers struggling with English often explained things briefly and concisely, and were unable to expand on their points if asked to do so by their students.
Professor Byun said more evidence of the effectiveness of English- language courses was needed.
He added that academics and policymakers in South Korea, and in other countries pursuing similar policies, needed to ask themselves whether the "global" benefits of studying in English truly outweighed the detrimental impact on local students' learning.