The South Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) is in the midst of a legal battle against 12 study abroad agencies due to their involvement in illegal “1+3” pathway programmes, which have been banned at a number of participating universities.
ICEF Monitor takes a closer look at the crackdown and offers clarity on which programmes are still approved by the Ministry, at least for the time being.
Initiating the ban
In late November 2012, the South Korean MEST appeared to dash the aspirations of over 1,000 students when it ordered an immediate end to 1+3 programmes – pathway programmes that involve one year of study at a domestic institution and three years of study at a university abroad, usually in the US.
The programmes gained popularity among Koreans because they allowed participants to enter US institutions without having to take the TOEFL exam or the SAT reasoning test (formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test), which is usually required of prospective undergraduates in the US. According to The Korea Herald, students could gain admission through high school grades and an interview alone.
During the first year of study, Korean students completed English language courses and liberal arts courses in Korea – as opposed to traditional foundation courses, which are completed at an institution abroad. The participating students then went on to enter foreign institutions as second-year or sophomore students.
At the time of the Ministry’s order, such programmes were operated by 19 universities across Korea. Of these institutions, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS) and Chung-Ang University ran the largest 1+3s, each admitting several hundred students per year. In total, participating Korean institutions selected over 1,200 students to begin these programmes in 2013.
Korea’s Higher Education Law
The MEST explains that the programmes in question had been found to violate the Higher Education Law, which stipulates that Korean post-secondary institutions may only offer a foreign degree as part of a dual degree programme. Dual degree programmes are also known as “2+2” programmes, because usually half of the programme is completed at a domestic institution while the other half is completed abroad. These double-degree programmes are entirely unaffected by the ban; they lead to a Korean as well as a foreign degree, and involve curricula taught by Korean institutions, meaning that they adhere to Korean regulations.
In contrast, graduates from the banned 1+3 programmes did not receive a Korean degree; in fact, they weren’t formally registered at the Korean institution at which they received their first year of instruction.
Commenting to The Korea Times, a ministry official explained why this practice is illegal:
“Students registered with domestic schools can obtain foreign schools’ diplomas through double degree programmes. But the students are not registered with the domestic ones and the programmes are irrelevant to domestic degrees, so the programmes are illegal.”
Another factor which placed such programmes into question is that many – if not all – of the institutions were found to have run or cooperated with private companies that taught the students in their first year.
In some cases, universities would allow private study abroad agencies or private institutes to use their brand to attract students, and some agencies rented university facilities to teach the undergraduates.
This teaching model violated regulations for two reasons: the agencies were not licensed to teach the students, and the universities misappropriated the continuing education centres, which are intended to promote lifelong learning.
A lack of transparency
Investigators from the Ministry were also concerned that Korean institutions involved showed a lack of transparency in their admission and administrative procedures.
As mentioned previously, students never registered with the Korean institutions. Students were given the impression that admission into the programme guaranteed admission to a foreign institution, and that the curriculum taught during the first year was affiliated with the programme of study they would complete abroad.
However, the Ministry found that the curriculum taught in Korea was not overseen by foreign partner institutions, and completion of this first year did not necessarily secure admission to a university abroad:
“…during the first year they don’t belong to the foreign colleges because the schools sometimes don’t allow admission for students with insufficient English skills for their second year. We’ve received petitions from students about such admission rejections and high tuition,” commented an official from the Ministry.
Although the Korean part of the programme was entirely separate from the programme of study that students completed abroad, parents were charged tuition equivalent to the amount which they would pay the foreign institution.
Speaking to The Korea Herald, the Ministry added that “the agencies have no right to teach students, but they made students pay between 10 million and 20 million WON (US $9,400 – US $18,800) for a one year course here, misrepresenting [the course] as part of the foreign degree course.”
Not all programmes are affected
Some 1+3 programmes continue to be offered legally at some Korean universities if they meet certain requirements, such as:
- the students pass entrance exams for the universities and are enrolled at the universities;
- the universities run the curriculum by themselves;
- the students receive a dual degree from a Korean university;
- the fees are not extraordinarily high.
Examples of institutions that appear to have escaped the censure of the Ministry include:
- Meta offers 1+3 via the University of Wollongong and Australian Maritime College.
- Kyongbuk University of Foreign Studies and Kennesaw State University have offered a 1+3 programme since 2010.
Certain private education providers are also offering 1+3 programmes which are still considered legal under certain conditions:
- First, they are not affiliated with universities, so the laws that govern higher education institutions do not appear to apply to them.
- Second, they seem to have permission from the Ministry to run the programme, in contrast to the agencies that offered the programme in cooperation with universities.
Examples of legal 1+3 programmes offered by private providers include:
- NCUK-IEN, a company that provides preparatory education for study in the UK.
- GAC Korea, an accredited representative of ACT (American College Testing) in Korea, which provides a one year prep course recognised by US institutions.
Responses from institutions and parents
At first, several Korean institutions appeared willing to challenge the ministry’s decision. Both Chung-Ang and HUFS posted messages on their websites stressing that the programme was entirely legal. But within a week, both institutions had agreed to shut down the programme.
However, a well-organised parent movement struck back, shutting down the Ministry’s order in the courts, and occupying the office of Chung-Ang University’s president with a 50-person strong sit-in protest, calling on the university administration to support their cause.
Eventually, the Ministry agreed to allow the students who had already enrolled for 2013 to complete the programme. However, the Ministry maintains that the programme is illegal, and that it can no longer be offered after 2013.