“Korean students are everywhere on campus.” A visiting professor at Peking University expressed this observation one month after arriving. Similarly 70 percent of international students in degree programs of the other top universities — such as Fudan University and Beijing Normal University—come from Korea. Also the University of Business and Economics, another major destination for international students.
China and South Korea established diplomatic relations in 1992. Although there were some Korean students at China’s universities before that landmark year, the establishment of diplomatic relations stimulated Korea’s large scale student migration to China. Korean students have become the largest group in international students at China’s academic institutions for a decade. In 2004, there were 43,617 Korean tertiary-level students in China, including 14,464 students in degree programs; in 2008, the total Korean students climbed to 66,806, including 25,701 students in degree programs. For much of the decade, Korean students have represented the highest proportion of all overseas students in this country. In 2008 as an example, Korean students accounted for 29.9 percent of overseas students — Korean students in degree programs accounted for 32.1 percent, and Korean students in non-degree programs accounted for 28.7 percent. Today, Korea is still the largest sending country of students to China.
But along with the large scale participation of Korean students, there are several potential problems that should attract the attention of Korean students and their parents, the Korean and Chinese governments, Chinese universities, and other stakeholders.
The Chinese language skill of some Korean students is insufficient. Korean students are required to use Chinese in classroom study, homework, thesis writing, and student life in China’s universities. The majority of Korean students enrolled in degree programs choose economy, business or Chinese language and literature as their major. Social sciences and humanities require more proficient Chinese language skill than disciplines and fields of study in natural sciences and engineering. The most challenging language skill is in thesis writing. China’s academic institutions demand that nearly all students — including international undergraduate, master and doctoral students—submit a thesis and in most cases the thesis must be written in Chinese. Many students cross the language barrier, and it is a big challenge for some Korean students who are not completely proficient in Chinese.
The quality of some prospective students from Korea needs improvement. Although there are many well-prepared Korean students in China’s universities, many of them are barely qualified. Korea’s most talented students tend to study abroad in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan or top universities at home. As a matter of fact, some Korean students who failed to be admitted to top or good universities at home are admitted by China’s top universities. The quality of the pre-university experience of these Korean students affects the outcomes of their study. Of course, this also reflects the modest benchmark that many Chinese universities use for admitting international students.
Another problem is that some Korean students tend to stick together. It is a universal phenomenon that international students are inclined to communicate with schoolmates from their motherland. The common language, culture and religion encourage this social inclination. However, Korean students are a particularly united group. They make friends with other Korean people within or beyond the university, and join parties initiated by Korean groups. Wudaokou is a community near Peking University, Tsinghua University and some other universities where numerous Korean students would choose to live. Some Korean students would rather rent apartments there than live in an international student dormitory within campus where rent is more attractive. Because of limited communication with Chinese students and teachers, many Korean students don’t acquire a deep understanding of Chinese society or culture. They maintain their “outsider” status until graduation.
The large scale of Korean students in China is certainly a good thing. It demonstrates a combination of increasingly close economic and trade cooperation between China and Korea, and Korean student interest in China. But, if the enterprise of study in China is to produce greater achievements, the quality of students and Chinese language proficiency need improvement. Korean students should be more open-minded, pursue broader communication with their Chinese counterparts, and actively experience Chinese culture.