By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, April 15 (Yonhap) -- When Cho Min-hong, an aspiring teen robot scientist, gained admission to the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, he made headlines as the first vocational school graduate to earn a spot at the nation's top science and technology school.
But barely a year later, the 19-year-old was found dead in January on his motorcycle with several empty bottles of sleeping pills strewn around him, a suicide that critics say revealed problems with the reform measures the school has taken since U.S.-educated President Suh Nam-pyo took office in 2006.
Mandating that nearly all classes taught in English was one of the steps that the university's reformist leader introduced to make the school more competitive globally, along with a punitive tuition program that deprives underperforming students of their free ride.
Advocates for English-language classes say that Suh has made the right moves, which are only inevitable in order to raise local universities' competitiveness by producing more students who can submit papers to prestigious overseas journals and attract more international students from abroad.
But critics argue that for a student like Cho, who focused only on making robots and spent little time learning English, studying higher mathematics and physics in a foreign language must have been an intimidating task.
The issue came to the fore after three more students followed Cho and took their own lives.
"The current high school English education system has not been focusing on listening and speaking. Under those circumstances, freshmen were not prepared adequately to take classes taught in English, which resulted in side effects," said Kang Bum-mo, a KAIST freshman.
KAIST's move toward becoming an international campus came at a time when many other South Korean universities have expanded their English-language curriculums.
Students at Seoul's Korea University have to take at least five lectures in English to graduate. At Yonsei University, professors must teach in English at least six classes in their first three years and 24 credit hours within six years.
In 2009, Sunkyunkwan University established a global economics and management department, which provides all classes in English.
Despite the trend, some question the efficacy of the English-language classes for major subjects when students and professors are unable to communicate with each other using the limited skills they have acquired through the current English education system that focuses on passing entrance exams.
According to a survey of 160 students at Korea University, 84 percent, or 134, said lectures in English did not help improve their English communication skills.
"In classes taught in English, I don't feel like students and professors are really communicating with each other," said Park Jae-kyun, a senior physics major at Korea University. "I have had a hard time understanding courses for my major. For some advanced courses, which are hard to understand even in Korean, English classes didn't help us."
Advocates insist, however, that English classes are a must if universities want to become top-class schools worldwide, and it is a matter of how the system would be enforced, not whether it is necessary or not.
"To those who operate universities, the number of courses taught in English can be a critical standard indicating the competitiveness of their institution," said a professor at a private Seoul college who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Gradually phasing in English-language classes, depending on the subject, can be one way to solve the problem, Chung Chong-sup, a law professor at Seoul National University, says.
"In case of law school, English classes on international tax and investment law may be appropriate. But it is hard to teach civil law, constitutional law or criminal law in English and have in-depth discussions on the subject," Chung said.
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