Asia has long yearned to create its own Ivy League for the great mass of students who can't afford to make it to Harvard. Now it has found a shortcut. Two years ago Yonsei, South Korea's oldest and most prestigious private university, set up the Underwood International College (UIC), which offers a four-year program of all-English-language classes to compete with the best institutions in America and Europe. By providing generous scholarships and high pay, the UIC has attracted top students and faculty members from around the world, making it an academic landmark in Asia. "Classes here are as tight as Ivy League classes," says Park Se Ung, a freshman at Yonsei's UIC. "For the final exam, I couldn't sleep at all for days."
Meanwhile Yonsei itself is offering more classes in English to keep students from seeking overseas study. Other elite universities, including Korea University and Ewha Woman's University, also recently created English-only undergraduate programs. And the same basic strategy—designed to both prevent brain drain and attract top foreign students—is spreading beyond Korea.
While the national universities of Singapore and Hong Kong have long been considered good alternatives to U.S. schools because of their heavy use of English, other non-English-speaking countries like Japan and China have introduced similar programs. Japan's prestigious Waseda University, for example, has run a successful English college since 2004, which focuses heavily on Asian culture, history, politics and other liberal arts. Beijing University and other top Chinese schools have also increased their English-language class offerings.
Asia's top students are signing up. For decades, the region's brightest flocked to the United States and other English-speaking nations for college. The big-name diplomas they earned—and the English fluency they gained—guaranteed success, whether they remained abroad or returned home. But since the start of the decade, more elite Asian universities have begun to promise the same thing, and students are jumping at the chance to stay closer to home—particularly in Northeast Asia. The shift is driven in part by growing job opportunities in the region, where students with domestic school connections tend to be rewarded in finding jobs because of their strong alumni ties. Post-9/11 visa restrictions for foreign students and rising tuition rates in the U.S. have also accelerated the trend. "Asian students have to have Asian networks to have successful careers," says Mo Jongryn, dean of Yonsei's UIC. "Even if they work on Wall Street, Asians are usually sent to Asian desks."
No country has embraced the move more than Korea. In 2002, for instance, Korea University offered less than 10 percent of its classes in English, but the proportion rose to 35 percent last year and is expected to hit 60 percent by 2010. The effort is part of a desperate attempt to retain students; Korea is perhaps the world's biggest supplier of overseas students, with nearly 200,000 from the elementary to the graduate level currently studying abroad. About a quarter of them study in the U.S., constituting the biggest foreign-student group there. In addition to creating a brain drain, their flight has lasting economic and social implications: overseas students spend roughly $5 billion a year. And fathers working alone in Korea who send money to their children and wives overseas are called "lonely geese" because of their migratory visits to their families; their tragic life stories, including suicides, often make headlines.
South Korea also aims to attract more foreign students by globalizing its universities. Currently, only 0.2 percent of students in the country are foreign–the lowest in the OECD. To lure others, universities are capitalizing on the rising overseas presence of Korean companies. Yonsei's UIC, for example, last year introduced a regional corporate scholarship program, where enterprises like Samsung and LG select and sponsor students from countries where they do business. Terry Santoso, who ranked in the top 5 percent at his Jakarta high school, originally planned to study at Nanyang Technology University in Singapore, but joined the UIC last fall after LG offered him an $18,500-a-year scholarship. Santoso is also guaranteed a job with LG when he returns to Indonesia after graduation. In addition to the financial support, he is relieved to be studying in a familiar environment. "I don't have the kind of culture shock I would have in the U.S.," he says. "It is easier to adapt to Korean culture because it is the same Asian culture as my country's."
To be sure, Asia's new English-language universities face some significant hurdles. Standards generally remain below those of top Western schools; more than three quarters of the world's top-100 universities are in Europe and America, according to the Times of London Education Supplement. Critics argue that the academic standards in Asia's English-only classes are especially weak because both professors and students lack language proficiency. At Korea University, the push to introduce English-language education has been so strong that the faculty recently voted out the president who initiated the campaign. Furthermore, Asia's universities face new competition from Western institutions seeking to establish a presence in the region: Stanford and Johns Hopkins recently set up campuses in China and MIT in Singapore.
Still, the new English-language schools are confident that even the Ivy League will soon be running scared. According to Yonsei's UIC, the average SAT score of its students is close to that of Northwestern University. Korean student Park Se Ung recently chose to attend Yonsei over Cornell, where he was also accepted. "If I decide to work in Korea, Yonsei would give me a better chance than Cornell," he says. "Besides, I get to stay closer to my family for four years, while saving their money." John Frankl, a UIC professor who taught at Harvard before coming to Korea three years ago, argues that his Korean students are just as motivated and bright as Harvard's. "Top private universities in the U.S. may not be affected by us that much," he says. "But state and other private schools will be seriously challenged." Jean Kang, a political scientist at Ewha, says graduates from the university's English undergraduate program were hired by top-notch global firms like Baker & McKenzie or accepted by prestigious graduate programs like Harvard Law School. "These are the future leaders of Asia with perfect English and strong Asian connections," she says. And diplomas from some of the finest schools in the region.