Nobel economics laureate Thomas Sargent, who was hired by Seoul National University as a full-time faculty member on a two-year contract in September last year, went back to the U.S. a year early in August this year. He had been hired as part of SNU's drive to attract Nobel laureates and paid W500 million plus W700-800 million in annual research funding and W200 million for additional expenses (US$1=W1,061).
Sargent would have seen his annual salary rise even further if he had completed his two-year stint, but he turned it all down and left citing "personal reasons."
The proportion of foreign academics in four-year universities here rose from 2.4 percent (1,021 people) in 2000 to 7.7 percent (5,358) this year. But most of them leave after just a few months of teaching here.
A few years ago, an American woman who was hired to teach art history at SNU packed up and left during the middle of the school year without even telling the university.
Most foreign professors want to bring their families when they come to Korea, but not many universities here can afford to cover their expenses. In Hong Kong with its seven million people there are 70 international schools, but Korea has fewer than 50 though its population stands at some 50 million. And foreign professors often find themselves ostracized by local faculty because meetings and official documents are all in Korean.
The biggest obstacle is a campus environment where communicating in a foreign language is extremely difficult. Even master's and doctoral candidates shun the lectures of foreign faculty, making it tough for many of them to set up their own research teams. Only 21 students applied for the macroeconomics course Sargent offered when it was open to 250.
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, which opened just 20 years ago, is ranked top among Asian universities because of its bold initiative to fill 80 percent of faculty seats with foreign staff from 30 different countries. The prestigious University of Vienna is required by law to fill two-thirds of its faculty with foreign academics.
If Korean universities are to become genuinely competitive on a global level, they need to open their doors further. They need to take a close look at why foreign professors are leaving and work with the government to prevent it.