Back in the 1990’s Korea had just democratized and was already well on its way to becoming the economic superpower that it is today. Globalization (세계화 – ̈with the world ̈) was President Kim Young Sam’s mantra at the time. Many Korean parents, whose Confucian values had always prioritized education, now wanted an English education for their children and the rising middle class had the money to afford it. The gates to the once very closed “Hermit Kingdom” were opened wide and native speaker English teachers flooded Korea.

It was not permitted, however, for Korean students to attend international schools in Korea – those were reserved for the children of expatriates and foreign passport holders. Thousands of Korean children were thus sent to boarding schools in English-speaking countries around the globe. When those schools would not take any more Koreans, the children were sent to private or public day schools instead. They would live with homestay families or their mom would move with them and they would rent or buy a house or apartment for the duration of their studies, traveling back and forth to Korea during vacations.

It might seem absurd, but thousands of Koreans even went as far as sending their children to international schools in places as far-fetched as Guatemala – not because one of the parents had been sent there for work by Samsung or Hyundai, but simply for the children to get an education in English at an international school.

In fact, many international schools, especially in Asian countries like the Philippines, Thailand, and China, had student bodies that were made up of over 25% Korean students, and in some cases up to as many as 40%. Schools had to consider not just the revenue they received from these students, but the socio- cultural dynamics as well, and some ended up imposing quotas on the number of Koreans they would accept – in essence, to avoid being overwhelmed by Koreans.

The Impact on Host Countries Like Canada

The impact of this influx of Korean and other international students was tremendous in host countries like Canada. In British Columbia and other provinces, public schools began charging over 10,000 CAD in annual tuition for ̈visa ̈ holding international students (as opposed to immigrants).

Public school boards developed international education departments with teams devoted to marketing and recruiting international students. New positions were created and Directors of International Education, International Marketing and Recruitment Officers, Cultural Liaison Officers, and Homestay Coordinators were hired. English as a Second Language classes in many schools skyrocketed in numbers and demand for qualified ESL teachers boomed. Local families supplemented their income by hosting Korean students, many of them elementary school pupils, by the thousands.

The lines between public and private education were blurred and debates, often behind the scenes within school boards, raged on the pros and cons of this trend for the host country. Was public education being bolstered by the addition of these new students and sources of revenue? Or was it being undermined by stretching resources to the limit without the real interests of the students at heart? And if public education is about creating citizens, where do ̈visa ̈ students, in the host country temporarily, fit in the equation?

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