Fairness of State Scholarship for Foreign Students Questioned
Korean officials have ignored their own rules to pick unqualified foreign students for state scholarships in an opaque and unfair practice, apparently customary between embassies and ranking foreign government officers.
These students ― who benefit from the taxpayer-funded program because they are children of influential dignitaries from foreign countries ― have difficulties studying at Korean universities as they are not proficient enough in Korean to understand the classes.
In an ambitious move to make state scholarships international similar to the Fulbright Program, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology integrated them into "Global Korea Scholarship," earmarking 51.5 billion won ($46.6 million) to promote the program as a core project.
However, its fairness and efficiency has been called into question as Korean embassies and the education authority are providing benefits to students who fall short of the minimum standards.
The Korean embassy in Afghanistan last year recommended two children of ranking Afghan government officials even though they failed to meet the minimum qualification: a grade point average (GPA) over 80 percent necessary to qualify for the scholarship program.
The two students, identified by their surname initials "S" and "R," respectively, couldn't speak Korean when they applied for the scholarship and even now have difficulties in keeping up with courses mostly conducted in the Korean language at Keimyung University in Daegu, although they finished the six-month language training course offered by the government.
A Korean embassy document, acquired by The Korea Times, says, "(the two students) are children of high-ranking government officials and our government needs to take good care of them since they could be future leaders, considering the practices of the country."
The fathers of the students were deputy ministers of two different ministries. A brother of one of the students was also a beneficiary of the scholarship program in 2008.
A counselor at the Korean embassy in the country who recommended the two students said, "We just passed the list of applicants, selected by the country's government, to our government. We don't have enough manpower to screen students."
For its part, the National Institute for International Education (NIIED), a government agency supervising the scholarship program, said, "We trust our embassy's network and they pick appropriate students for our program."
A director of the agency also said they were unable to check the qualifications of all the scholarship students.
However, experts and college students say the government should be more careful and make the screening process more transparent for the program to be a success story. Otherwise, it may backfire, they said.
Kim Sung-han, a professor of international relations at Korea University, said it was very wrong to give favors to unqualified children of high ranking officials.
"Even private companies thoroughly screen scholarship applicants to select the best students. The government, using taxpayers' money, should not pick students recklessly," Kim said.
The professor also said that unfair scholarship programs will eventually ruin the image of Korea.
The state program doesn't require applicants to pass any exams or submit certificates of proficiency in Korean or English skills.
Last year, a total of 504 foreign nationals benefited from the program and the ministry aims to attract 700 students this year who will receive money for university tuition, housing and monthly allowances.