Language departments in peril as Asia keeps foreign students away

Japanese and Korean schools struggle to recruit as border restrictions continue

March 17, 2021
Source: iStock

Language departments at some East Asian universities are being mothballed, with warnings that more could follow suit, as a result of financial and reputational repercussions of border restrictions that have kept hundreds of thousands of foreign students off campuses for a year.

Many foreign students have been barred from China and Japan since last March and April, respectively. Meanwhile South Korea’s entry requirements have become more onerous recently.

Those three countries, which collectively hosted nearly a million foreign students before the pandemic, are coming under fire for policies that critics have called unjust. 

Futao Huang, a professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University, told Times Higher Education that “more than half of Japan’s universities felt that they had and would have difficulty recruiting sufficient new entrants”.

Private institutions and language schools were hit particularly hard, he said. According to a survey released this month, Japanese language colleges that attract mostly international students were at 37 per cent capacity. Professor Huang feared that some “have made plans to close if no new students are recruited for the fall term starting on 1 October”.

South Korean universities, already struggling to recruit domestically, have also seen a drop in foreign students, who face three Covid tests, mandatory quarantine and increased health insurance costs. Government messaging is also less than welcoming; the education ministry “encouraged” foreign students to stay home. 

Similar to Japan, the hardest hit schools are the ones teaching local language and culture – ironically, a field of study that was booming because of the popularity of K-pop.

Incheon National University's Songdo campus will temporarily close its Korean language school in June after enrolment fell from 2,000 to 200, according to the Yonhap news agency. Yonsei University’s international campus, also in Songdo, closed its Korean language school in February after it attracted only 46 students. 

David Tizzard, an assistant professor in Korean studies at Seoul Women’s University, told THE that he had only one international student attending lessons while physically in Korea this semester. “Many come here not just for the study or education, but for the cultural experience and the chance to see the world,” he said, explaining that foreign students would currently be spending much time in their dormitories instead of exploring the country.

He added that border restrictions that treated “foreigners” differently to returnee Koreans were “causing a lot of conflict in society at the moment, as many feel Korea is moving backwards in its treatment of foreign people and attitudes towards multiculturalism”.

The largest cohort of students trapped outside their dorms, labs and classrooms are enrolled in Chinese universities.

In January, students from 200 universities formed the China International Student Union (CISU), which is trying to lobby the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for their return. Border rules that came into effect on 15 March were a disappointment, because they did not mention students and gave preference to those who had taken a Chinese vaccine, which is not universally available overseas.

A PhD candidate from Pakistan, who helps run CISU’s online feeds, told THE that they felt “left out” for “political and economic reasons”. For example, South Koreans or those enrolled at New York University’s Shanghai campus were allegedly allowed entry, whereas students from South Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa were not.

“It has affected students’ feelings towards China,” the researcher said. “Students feel they are not important to China. We have realised that they are not committed to delivering quality education.” 

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