Sunday, December 16, 2007

Ave, Nomad! (visa news)

Many thanks to the Nomad for linking to the Korea Herald article titled "New visa rules enrage foreign-language teachers." The first sentence of the article belies this idea that teachers are enraged (the sentence says they're "upset and baffled"), but the article itself contains, as the Nomad indicates, plenty of valuable information. In fact, I find the article worth reproducing in its entirety because I want to keep it around long after it gets shunted into the paying archives.

Without further ado...

Foreign English instructors are upset and baffled over the new visa regulations, effective beginning Saturday, which requires applicants to submit their criminal background check and health data including HIV-AIDS and drug-test results.

The government introduced the new measure as part of efforts to diminish the risk of dangerous people getting hired, as well as to guarantee the credentials of foreign teachers. Officials believe this step to be essential to weeding out unqualified instructors, while parents welcome it as a necessary step to ensuring a quality and safe education for their children.

But foreign teachers and private institutes complain that the tougher rule will be too costly, time-consuming, and prohibitive, in addition to potentially violating privacy rights.

Critics suggest that the Korean government did not make sufficient preparations before implementing the rule, as in publicizing and explaining the changes to teachers, and coordinating with foreign governments. The new regulations could drive foreign teachers out, keep many from even applying here, and exacerbate the shortage of native teaching staff, experts say.

New visa rules

Under the new law, applicants for a new E2 visa or an extension have to submit their criminal background certificate and medical report. In addition, applicants are required to appear for a personal interview at the nearest Korean embassy or consulate in their home countries, with some exceptions, according to the Justice Ministry.

Criminal-check records are also required for C4 visa candidates who plan to work in English language camps here for less than 90 days.

In their initial application package, prospective teachers must fill out a short, unofficial health statement regarding infectious diseases, drug use, and psychological problems. Then, within three months after arriving here, the official medical data must be provided to the immigration office, as part of the application for residence registration. The medical exam to be conducted by government-approved public and general hospitals includes tests for narcotics use and HIV/AIDS, the ministry explained.

The academic-credentials check has also been toughened. The original degree, along with a copy of it, must be submitted. The original will be returned after the credentials are authenticated. The copy must be verified by the Korean consulate in applicants' home countries or the Korean Council for University Education (

If one has already verified his or her academic credentials, the process of obtaining an E-2 visa will not be different from the previous application procedures, or will be even more convenient, ministry officials explained.

"If applicants already had their academic backgrounds verified by certified organizations such as the Korean Council for University Education, they need not undergo the interview. In that case, they can apply for an E-2 visa at a Korean embassy in a third nation such as Japan. We will put those with verified academic credentials in our database so that they don't have to submit them later again," said a Justice Ministry official who refused to be identified.

"(Those) who previously held an E1 (for professors), E2 (for English conversation teaching) or E3 (for researchers) visa, and have not committed any crimes during their stay in Korea, will be also exempted from the interview requirement."

The ministry official added that those whose visa expires right after the new rule goes into effect will be offered a three-month period to prepare the required documents.

The new rule is the result of widespread uneasiness over the credibility of foreign English teachers; this came to a head in late October when Christopher Paul Neil, a Canadian English teacher who taught here for four years, was arrested in Thailand on child molestation charges. The recent spate of degree-forgery scandals involving high-profile Korean figures in various professions accelerated the calls to screen out unqualified teachers.

As of Oct. 31, 2007, the number of E-2 visa holders was 17,826, according to the Korea Immigration office. By nationality, the United States accounts for the largest number, with 6,981, followed by Canada with 5,265, the United Kingdom with 1,663, New Zealand with 760, South Africa with 696, and Australia with 688.

The number of foreign English teachers illegally staying here was reported to be 143 in 2005, 200 in 2006, and 470 in 2007, the data showed.

In 2007, 198 U.S. nationals and 139 Canadians are among 470 undocumented English teachers, accounting for over 70 percent of the total, the survey noted.

Some parents welcome the new law as "long-overdue and necessary."

"Some vetting process is a must-do. Language is a vehicle of one's thought and ideology. My kid's behavior can be modeled after what she experiences with foreign teachers. Considering that my child has yet to develop the ability to sort out what's good from what's bad, I can't leave her in the hands of unverified teachers," said Choi Eun-ee, a mother of a five-year-old daughter.

"In determining what makes a good teacher, ethical standards are as important as English competency. Speaking perfect English doesn't mean everything. Even if there are only a few criminals among foreign instructors, we should have this precautionary measure in place to ward off would-be criminals, so as not to make my kid one of the rare victims," said Lee Eun-gyeong, a mother of a five-year-old boy.

Foreign instructors perplexed

Most foreign instructors interviewed by The Korea Herald are puzzled by the measure, and complain about the "not-well-publicized and abrupt" implementation of the changes.

"I was not even informed of the changed law. My director wasn't, either. I do understand the need (to implement the law), but it is a little extreme. They (foreign English teachers) may not renew their visas. They will probably find another country such as Japan and Hong Kong," said Katy Gardner, an English teacher from Britain.

"I found it confusing and complicated, with all paperwork and bureaucratic hassle," said an English teacher from the United States who preferred not to be named.

"I cannot help our confused teachers extend their visas because I don't know exactly what needs to be done. (The ministry) should have held some sort of seminars to let people know -- at least those who will be affected by the rules first-hand," said a university official who manages foreign instructors.

"I think it is a little short-sighted. Given all the work that will be required at bureaucratic levels, it would take months to get everybody to cooperate and to fulfill all the criteria in a timely manner. It could provoke a bureaucratic nightmare," said Cameron Wood, a professor at Chung-Ang University.

The ministry, however, said it launched an all-out effort at the very outset to publicize the implementation of these changes.

"On Nov. 19, we began distributing information on the changes through various organizations, including the Education Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, about 30 immigration offices across the nation, and the regional associations of private language schools. We also posted the guidelines on our website and other relevant government homepages," said a Justice Ministry official.

"On Dec. 10, we also invited consuls from embassies of the United States, Britain, Ireland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand to inform them of the new law. We also answered Canada's questions on E-2 visa rules in writing. We also trained our personnel who will take charge of the matter," he added.

Those who want to extend their E-2 visa here in Korea complain that the new rules will cost them much time and money.

"I asked my father to find a way to get me the criminal records. I heard it will take you over 40 days -- such a time-consuming process. However, on a professional level, I feel the necessity to weed out less-desirable teachers who don't have enough determination to teach young kids," said an anonymous British teacher.

"One instructor in our school says he would book an expensive flight to the United States to get the work done to renew his visa, which expires in February next year. He is frustrated that he will have to spend his 10-day vacation preparing the documents," said the manager of a university language center.

The new visa rules are hotly debated on the internet, as well.

"To suddenly ask a large group of people to provide a criminal check is unreasonable. I've never committed a crime in my life. If I was suddenly asked to offer that, then I would quit and go home," said a foreigner named Kevin.

"For those dealing with children, a criminal check is necessary under any situation. As is drug and infectious disease testing," said Michael.

"The mere fact that foreigners are required to take these tests says one thing to all Korean citizens: 'All foreigners have AIDS and are criminals.' That is a ridiculous stigma," said Chad.

But another person who prefers not to be named said: "I would like to stop hearing excuses from subtle foreigners with their schemes to deviate from the law. Has Korea become a haven for criminals?"

Medical check

As to the items listed in the medical report, there has been some confusion because most hospitals here do not conduct any drug-related tests.

"I took several foreign instructors to the hospital affiliated with our school. Although it is one of the largest-scale hospitals in Seoul, hospital officials say they don't conduct such tests listed in the required medical report," a university official said.

In Korea, drug tests are usually conducted at police agencies; hospitals do not conduct such tests, since there has been no demand for them, hospital officials explained.

The ministry says they are aware of the problem.

"We contacted several hospitals to see if they conduct such tests. They said they don't without a sufficient demand for such tests. We found, after some research, that the Health Ministry-affiliated Seoul Medical Science Institute ( does the tests," said a ministry official.

"If you take the test at designated hospitals, they will ask the institute to analyze the test. This will take less than one week, and cost less than 10,000 won ($11). The result will be sent by mail. We have yet to obtain the list of hospitals that are linked to the institute. We will soon release them," he added.

Shortage of foreign teachers

The stricter visa regulations have raised concern regarding the possible shortage of native English teachers amid the growing demand at exactly the time when English is viewed as a "necessary communication and survival" tool, experts explained.

"There will be a huge backlog of teachers in hagwons or private institutes. I suppose -- this is another ethical concern -- that those whose businesses would suffer would hire persons on the street. The policy itself is not misguided, but it has to be governed and implemented in a prudent manner," said Professor Wood.

"Considering those who apply to work here only for a short time, the shortage of teachers is a foregone conclusion. Who would be willing to go through all this to work just for several months? Almost every university opens English camps during summer and winter vacations. These regulations will obviously block all such businesses from operating," said Hong Seung-pyo, an English instructor at a university language center in Gyeonggi Province.

"Small private language institutes might go belly-up. The possible shortfall may well cause the salary of English teachers to surge, making hagwon owners unable to hire expensive instructors. The pay is already very high. The yearly salary, on average, including housing and all, would be around $36,000, slightly higher than what average U.S. college graduates earn. Small hagwons can't afford to handle this." said a foreign instructor recruiter who refused to be identified. "The worst-case situation, where the survival of small-sized hagwons is determined by the whim of native English teachers, could soon materialize, since the demand would skyrocket with a short supply of teachers," he added

Any alternative?

Some education experts say there are better ways to screen out unqualified applicants.

"Korean law at large needs to be globalized. The new law seems to be going against global trends. Enforcing this law which is devised to weed out criminals -- who may account for one percent of the total foreign teachers -- would be what appears to be an administrative waste," said Cha Kyung-whan, a professor at Chung-Ang University.

"Good doctors don't use much medicine. Rather than legally binding teachers, we should perhaps devise a methodical system to train and monitor them to lead our kids in the right way," he added.

"We should establish a special training center for those E-2 visa holders to teach them how to teach. Techniques required to teach little kids are of overriding importance. Many E-2 visa holders come here with little experience in the educational field, so I have had much difficulty getting them to fit in as actual teachers. The law cannot verify them, but systemized training would do (much better)," said a university official.

"We can train them at a training center, and evaluate them based on their improvements. If and when they fall behind, we can screen them out."

Some teachers believe that Korean English teachers could cover the possible shortage of foreign teachers.

"Korean teachers are better at catching what students need, and offering feedback at the proper time; this is something that foreign teachers are lacking in. I also think that those who are at my peers (in their late 20s or early 30s) have almost native-like English proficiency. The time will come when we don't have to depend on foreign teachers that much," said an English teacher in Seoul, requesting anonymity.

"The qualifications to become English teachers here will be tightened, starting in 2009. Those who can't teach a class in proficient English cannot pass the competitive tests. On top of that, various governmental programs, including overseas and domestic language training, are offered. All of this can reduce our dependence on native English teachers, although this could take some more time," said Won Kyu-wang, an English teacher in Ilsan, Gyeonggi Province.

By Song Sang-ho




1 comment:

R said...

Are criminal/drug/disease checks mandatory for Korean nationals, or those with a Korean spouse?

What a spectacular knee-jerk reaction.

Watch the explosion of 'Kong-o' hagwans.

It's time to ask for a pay rise Kevin.