SEOGWIPO, South Korea — Here on Jeju Island, famous for its tangerine groves, pearly beaches and honeymoon resorts, South Korea is conducting a bold educational experiment, one intended to bolster opportunity at home and attract investment from abroad.
By 2015, if all goes according to plan, 12 prestigious Western schools will have opened branch campuses in a government-financed, 940-acre Jeju Global Education City, a self-contained community within Seogwipo, where everyone — students, teachers, administrators, doctors, store clerks — will speak only English. The first school, North London Collegiate, broke ground for its campus this month.
While this is the country’s first enclave constructed expressly around foreign-style education, individual campuses are opening elsewhere. Dulwich College, a private British school, is scheduled to open a branch in Seoul, the capital, in a few weeks. And the Chadwick School of California is set to open a branch in Songdo, a new town rising west of Seoul, around the same time.
What is happening in South Korea is part of the global expansion of Western schools — a complex trend fueled by parents in Asia and elsewhere who want to be able to keep their families together while giving their children a more global and English-language curriculum beginning with elementary school, and by governments hoping for economic rewards from making their countries more attractive to foreigners with money to invest.
“We will do everything humanly possible to create an environment where your children must speak English, even if they are not abroad,” Jang Tae-young, a Jeju official, recently told a group of Korean parents.
By inviting leading Western schools, the government is hoping to address one of the notorious stress points in South Korean society. Many parents want to send children abroad so they can learn English and avoid the crushing pressure and narrow focus of the Korean educational system. The number of South Korean students from elementary school through high school who go abroad for education increased to 27,350 in 2008 from 1,840 in 1999, according to government data.
But this arrangement often resulted in the fracturing of families, with the mother accompanying the children abroad and the father becoming a “goose” — by staying behind to earn the money to finance these ventures and taking occasional transoceanic flights to visit.
This trend has raised alarms about broken families and a brain drain from a country that is already suffering from one of the world’s lowest birthrates. Many of the children who study abroad end up staying abroad; those who return often have trouble finding jobs at Korean companies, regaining their language fluency or adapting to the Korean way of doing business.
Lee Kyung-min, 42, a pharmacist in Seoul whose 12-year-old daughter, Jeong Min-joo, attended a private school in Canada for a year and a half, said she knew why families were willing to make sacrifices to send their children away.
“In South Korea, it’s all rote learning for college entrance exams,” Ms. Lee said. “A student’s worth is determined solely by what grades she gets.” She added that competition among parents forced their children to sign up for extracurricular cram sessions that left them with little free time to develop their creativity. “Children wither in our education system,” she said.
So Min-joo’s parents believed that exposing her to a Western school system was worth the $5,000 they paid each month for her tuition and board, 10 times what they would have spent had she studied at home.
But Ms. Lee said her heart sank when Min-joo began forgetting her Korean grammar and stopped calling home. Still, she did not want to leave her husband behind to join her daughter, because she had witnessed in her own neighborhood how often the loneliness of “goose” fathers led to broken marriages.
“Our family was losing its bonds, becoming just a shell,” she said.
In June, they brought Min-joo home, and they plan to enroll her in one of the international boarding schools in Jeju, often romanized as Cheju, next year. For Ms. Lee, this is the closest she can get to sending her daughter abroad without leaving the country.
“There is an expressed desire in Korea to seek the benefits of a ‘Western’ or ‘American’ approach to pre-collegiate education,” said Ted Hill, headmaster of the Chadwick School, whose Songdo campus has been deluged with applicants to fill the 30 percent of slots reserved for Korean students. The balance of the student body will be recruited from expatriate families living in South Korea and China.
“When we explain to Korean parents what we try to do in the classroom, we see their eyes light up,” said Chris DeMarino, business development director at Dulwich College Management International, which has a government-set 25 percent ceiling on Korean students at its Seoul school. “There is a tremendous demand for what we offer, but, unfortunately, we have to turn many of them away.”
In South Korea, English proficiency and a diploma from a top American university are such important status markers that some deliberately sprinkle their Korean conversation with English phrases.
The country sends more nonimmigrant students — 113,519 in the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, 2009 — to the United States than any other country except China, according to the United States Office of Immigration Statistics.
In a 2008 survey by South Korea’s National Statistical Office, 48.3 percent of South Korean parents said they wanted to send their children abroad to “develop global perspectives,” avoid the rigid domestic school system or learn English. More than 12 percent wanted it for their children as early as elementary school.
Critics say that the Jeju schools — with annual tuition fees of $17,000 to $25,800 and their English-language curriculum, aside from the Korean language and history classes for Korean students — will create “schools for the rich.” But Kwon Do-yeop, a vice minister of land, transport and maritime affairs whose department oversees the project, said it could save South Korea $500 million annually in what is now being spent to educate children overseas.
“Jeju schools cost half what you spend when you have your children studying in the United States,” said Byon Jong-il, the chief of the Jeju Free International City Development Center, which is managing the education project as part of an overall plan for the island. “Not everything goes right when you send your children abroad.”
Some of the things that can go wrong have been highlighted by the economic downturn.
“Many of the students who were sent abroad in the 1990s have since returned home,” said Shin Hyun-man, the president of CareerCare, a job placement company. “Despite their foreign diplomas, they were unable to find jobs abroad because of the global recession. But their Korean isn’t good enough, and they don’t adapt well to the corporate culture here.”
Jimmy Y. Hong, a graduate of Middlesex University in London and now a marketing official at LG Electronics in Seoul, said that when he returned to South Korea in 2008, he enrolled in a business master’s degree program at Yonsei University in Seoul to help compensate for his lack of local school connections, which can be critical to making friends, landing jobs and closing deals.
“I feared I might be ostracized for studying abroad,” he said.
Source: New York Times