Welcome foreigners to avoid demographic cliff edge, Korea told

Non-Korean academics must often accept ‘dead-end jobs’ and isolation among native colleagues

December 6, 2021
Guards of Gyeongbokgung Palace wearing face masks with traditional pattern stand at the gate of the palace to illustrate Welcome foreigners to avoid demographic cliff edge, Korea told
Source: Getty

South Korean universities must work harder to attract overseas academics if they are to mitigate a looming demographic cliff edge, scholars have said.

The country is popular with international students, but it has few lecturers from abroad, something that will need to change if it is to avoid slipping behind its peers on research performance. The issue is coming to a head as a generation of older Koreans, including professors, prepare to retire in coming years.

But currently, internationalisation is little more than a box-ticking exercise for many Korean institutions, said Terri Kim, professor of comparative higher education and academic visitor at St Antony’s College, Oxford.

“If you are non-Korean and an international scholar who wants to work in a Korean university and develop your career, there is a barrier,” Professor Kim said.

While tenure track academic positions finally became legally open to foreigners in 2007, it remains very rare for overseas scholars to be employed on the tenure track.

Internationalisation was too often a “numbers game” meant to give a “facade” of diversity, Professor Kim said, an approach that frequently led to short-term and celebrity hires – such as Nobel laureates – who garner publicity but tend to offer little in the way of truly bridging cultural barriers and spurring long-term change at their institutions.

“Interculturality”, which goes “beyond a mere ‘tolerance of other’…should be an ultimate goal of internationalisation in Korean universities”, Professor Kim said.

Even for those rare international scholars who stay long term at Korean universities, the feeling of being an outsider often persists.

Jocelyn Clark is a professor of Eastern studies at Pai Chai University who has been teaching in the country for more than a decade. Nevertheless, she said, as a non-Korean faculty member, her work is often “lonely and alienating”.

Although she speaks and lectures in Korean, Professor Clark said, she had been excluded by her peers: she is not invited to faculty meetings, and she is left out of social gatherings.

“Usually when you come in as a Korean faculty member, they introduce you to each other – the faculty who came in the same year as you – make a club, go out dining and drinking,” she said. “As a foreigner, you’re just not included.”

Another international scholar, whom Professor Kim spoke with in her research, described his experience as a faculty member at a Korean university as an “extremely lucrative dead-end job”.

For Korean academics, their respected status and good pay has made them “very complacent – they’re not anxious about the status of Korean universities”, said Professor Kim.

Although the landscape is slowly shifting, Professor Kim said that without further steps, Korea risks falling behind research rivals.

Even as academia in the US and the UK turns its focus to equal opportunities and diversity, “in Korea there is no such debate”, she said. “If you’re not Korean, there’s a disadvantage.”


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