By Kang Seung-woo
Foreign students studying at Korean universities are expressing their frustration with schools charging them unfairly higher tuition fees compared with their domestic counterparts, whose education costs have been frozen.
While they claim the higher tuition does not bring about quality education, local schools are countering their argument, saying the increase in the number of international students results in higher expenditures, so it is reasonable they should pay more.
According to Higher Education in Korea, the education ministry's website giving information about universities, major schools in Seoul increased international students' tuition this year.
Kyung Hee University raised fees by 8.8 percent, and Sungkyunkwan University, Hanyang University and Yonsei University all raised theirs by 5 percent.
A closer look shows that Kyung Hee increased the tuition to expand the number of English-speaking classes and improve welfare facilities for foreigners. Sogang University plans to spend the money to build an education center for international students.
"I think it is unfair that international students have to pay more for tuition than Korean students ― even though we take the same classes," a Chinese student of Sungkyunkwan University said.
"In the wake of the tuition hike, Chinese students here asked the university about it and the school said it has to provide more services for international students such as visa and mentoring services, so we have to pay more."
A Mongolian student at Korea University also echoed the Chinese student's view.
"This year, I was surprised to see the school increase the tuition fee by 4 percent. I still cannot agree with the school's decision to take more fees from foreigners," he said, adding that the school failed to give a full explanation of the hike.
A Japanese student studying at Yonsei University expressed frustration that the school failed to give advance notice regarding the tuition hike.
The international students also say what is more frustrating is that despite the increased tuition, they have seen little improvement in their classes.
"It does not make sense for us to pay more tuition and a large number of students around me are making similar complaints," the Chinese student said.
Along with the unfair tuition, Leonardo Ferreira, a Brazilian student at Seoul National University's College of Engineering, said international students have fewer opportunities for scholarships compared with Korean students.
"There are fewer scholarship programs from schools for foreign students and we usually receive scholarships from our own countries or the Korean government," he said.
Many universities have maintained a tuition freeze for Korean students in line with the government's policy to limit tuition increases. Last year, the Ministry of Education came up with its guidelines allowing schools to raise tuition by up to 2.25 percent if they give up applying for a state-funded scholarship program worth 1.2 trillion won ($1 million) annually.
But international students' tuition fees are not subject to the government's guidelines.
Critics say as universities cannot increase tuition for local students to the extent that they want, they are turning their focus on foreign students, whose tuition is exempt from the government's cap, as a means to maximize profit.
Due to the growing expressions of discontent from international students, some 100 Chinese students at Sogang University sent emails to the school to protest the hike in February.
In order to ease dissatisfaction, the student council of Korea University arbitrated between international students and the school. As a result, the university raised the tuition fees by 4 percent for this year, down from its initial plan of 5 percent.
Schools also have much to say about the tuition hike.
"Amid a growing number of international students here, we have to increase tuition fees and a portion of them are used to expand facilities and improve services for them," an official of a local university said on condition of anonymity.
But even some local students are not buying into the claim by foreign students.
"It would stand to reason that schools may have to spend more money for them. Think about Koreans studying overseas: they have to pay more than local students there," a Korean student said.
As Korea's population decreases, sparked by the lowest-ever birthrate, local schools are trying to attract foreign students.
According to Higher Education in Korea, the number of international students has been rising steadily over the past five years from 57,675 in 2014 to 99,714 in 2018.