The high cost of studying English in Korean academies in the Philippines

It is surprising at just how little attention this has received but, 110 Korean students (Joongang-Ilbo says 113) – most of them between the ages of  10 and 16 – have had their passports confiscated and are being detained by Philippine immigration officials for entering the country illegally to study English at a Korean-operated English academy.  It is truly a sordid affair and should prove to be fairly amusing to many of the English teachers in Korea.

According to the Korea Times (January 14, 2011):

The students, mostly of elementary school age and a handful from middle school, had paid 2 million won to 3 million won individually to a Philippine institute that was in charge of the English learning program, and started classes early this month.

However, they were reported to have violated the law when the BI discovered that the institute did not pay the 150,000 won for each student’ SSP to the local government.

This is in fact not the first time students or Koreans have been detained in the Philippines for not having the proper documents they needed to stay and study.

Despite warnings against such incidents, many parents and Korean institutes that arrange the language courses just proceed with the cheap and quick language courses.

“Even when they realize that the program is not that good and the students have to study with a bunch of other Korean students, they just turn a blind eye,’’ said a clerk from a language institute, declining to be named.

According to immigration law in the Philippines, foreigners cannot come and study without a student visa or an SSP.

The SSP is only given to those who are studying at a certified institute by the immigration office, and experts warn parents to confirm this requirement before signing up for a language program in the Philippines.

As a note – the word “detain” in regards to the students doesn’t mean they are being held in jail but are being prevented from leaving the country.  They are still staying at their dorms and are able to do some touristy-type of activities.  The adults are/were being detained at Camp Bagong Diwa.


But just how willing are these parents to investigate the legal status of these academies?  The Joongang Ilbo editorial (January 17, 2011) characterizes the students’ plight as having been “victimized by greedy companies willing to break the law in order to save money.” 

Even today, most companies that help parents send their children to study in the Philippines still publicize on their Web sites that they can get students enrolled in courses without the necessary visas, citing their “experience” in such affairs.

They advertise that students can stay up to a year as long as they have their passports and a round-trip airline ticket.

You would think the offer of getting around the visa requirement would raise red flags in the minds of parents but obviously not.  As many of these articles have noted – studying English in North America and, for that matter, in Korea, is just too expensive.  It is probably a little ironic that Korean parents worry about crime in the United States but have little qualms of committing a crime – per se – in the Philippines.  How much of a crime?

Sandra Cam blows the whistle!

According to one report: “There’s an estimated 40,000-50,000 Korean English students in Korean Language Centers in Metro Manila, Cavite, Batangas, Quezon, Baguio, Angeles, Cebu, Iloilo and Dumaguete.”  It is obvious that a lot of people, including the Philippine authorities, are aware of these illegal schools, so what caused the sudden crack down?  Pretty much a no-brainer – money.  I find it more than a little amusing that it resembles the actions of academy owners here in Korea who took matters into their own hands by alerting immigration officials of foreigners privately tutoring because they saw it as a threat to their businesses (discussed here on the Hole -Watch out Big Nose Teachers).  According to this blogger – Buhay Sa Korea:

Sandra Cam, known as the hueteng whistleblower, complained about a Korean-run English learning center in the Philippines that has been using the name of Cam’s school without her permission.

Sandra Cam is quite the character and those interested can google her name – I have, however provided this one link to GMA.NEWS (March 1, 2010).

This article in Philippine Star (January 11, 2011) goes into much greater detail in the role Sandra Cam played.

A Korean woman recruiter had approached Sandra to enroll 30 Korean students at Nazareth Institute for English classes. Sandra asked the Korean lady if the Korean students had secured a student study permit (SSP) from the Bureau of Immigration and asked her to show their passports. The Korean recruiter retorted:  “It is not necessary to get an SSP because we just pay immigration officials to protect us.”

That is a lot of money!  According to the article’s title – P300 million take for immigration – which is about $6.8 million USD.

Apparently the blog – Buhay Sa Korea got his/her information from this video (In Tagalog and English with footage of the school) or in this article in Manila Standard Today (January 14, 2011) which gives a great amount of information including the location of the and the names of the adult Koreans arrested – naturally I won’t paste those here but if you are interested – read the article.  I did find it interesting to note that the article said the students would also be blacklisted from returning to the Philippines but I remember reading elsewhere that the Korean government was taking steps to remedy that as the students were “victims” as well.

This article by GMA.NEWS.TV (January 15, 2011) had this to add:

“According to the BI, the six South Korean nationals pretended to be conducting ‘summer camps’, when the facility was in fact being operated as an English-language school staffed by Filipino teachers,” the DFA said in the release.

“The facility was being marketed as a school in South Korea,” it added.

Apparently not all the students were from the same academy.  According to the Joongang Ilbo article on January 15, 2011:

The sources said 43 more Korean children studying at another language center in the Philippines, along with seven Korean managers, were rounded up later by immigration and also had their passports confiscated.

According to Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the 113 Korean students remain at residences affiliated with the centers, but the 14 Korean adults are being detained at an immigration office in the Philippines.


Wonder how the adults liked Camp Bagong Diwa which is described as “a prison complex and drug rehabilitation center”? This article in the Philippine Examiner (January 16, 2011) reports that 7 of the Korean adults have already been deported and will be barred from reentering the Philippines.  They should be glad to be out of the country.  An activist group in the Philippines wanted them (names included in the article) charged for human smuggling.

And, in closing, this article in the Korea Times entitled 60 years later – Korea is biggest donor to RP (January 17, 2011) just strikes me as ironic:

When it comes to people-to-people exchanges, both have an illuminating profile.

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention The high cost of studying English in Korean academies in the Philippines | The Marmot's Hole --

  • chrisinsouthkorea

    Oh, those poor Korean parents that spend all their money on their child’s education…

    Seriously, though, the ‘woe is me’ angle is simply hilarious. Is this just a case of the locals paying money and assuming everything will be taken care of, or simply a reminder that corrupt business practices extend throughout the world?

  • Craash

    An activist group in the Philippines wants them charged with “human smuggling”.

    Thats funny! I say do it. I guess Koreans treat Philippine people like “cr5p” and Philippine people want a little revenge. Go for it!

    I still wonder why Korean parents would send their kids to a third world country to study English in an illegal Korean Hagwon taught by illegal Korean teachers without checking the Hagwon out properly first. Remember, Korean parents “Love their children better than western parents”. – Thats why there kids don’t have to wear seatbelts.

  • Fullslab

    The Korean government sees Koreans are “victims” when they get taken advantage of or ignore the “get around visa requirements” recruiter advertisement while native language teachers are NEVER “victims” when they get taken advantage of by recruiters in S. Korea. “TASTE KOREA!”
    Has there ever been a sympathetic native language teacher vs Hagwon/recruiter story in S. Korea?

  • pawikirogii

    Who’s to blame? Well, whoever the Korean party is. That’s who.

  • pawikirogii

    ‘Has there ever been a sympathetic native language teacher vs Hagwon/recruiter story in S. Korea?’ yes, told ad nauseum by people like you right here. Glad I could help.

  • keith

    Silly Pawi. It is Koreans to blame of course. It is Koreans who run the Hagwon, it is Koreans who study in the hagwon, and it is Koreans who have had their kids detained by the Filipino authorities for breaking the visa laws. I feel sorry for the kids, but the parents should be more sensible and the crooked hagwon owners should be arrested, fined, have their business licences (if they even have licences) revoked and be deported. I hope the kids are sent back to Korea soon, it’s not their fault the parents are dumb and the business people dishonest.

    I suppose it is no suprise really, pretty much anyone who has worked in the ESL industry for any significant time in Korea has experienced corruption and dishonesty from the owners and bosses. It’s just how Korean hagwon bosses roll.

  • agoldensky

    You say the Korean party is to blame, but which one, the parents for sending their kids to another country, without it would seem, checking to see if it was even legal, or the Korean hogwon for allowing these children to enter a foreign country and risk such consequences all in the name of education, sorry meant profit? Lets hope for everyone involved’s sake that there is at least one foreigner involved so as to blame. As for Korean mom’s unique love for their children, and as insulting and stupid as that ridiculous statement is, perhaps this is a good example of just how unique this love is

  • chiamattt

    Just wait until the parents find out that US beef was served daily in the cafeteria!

  • Fullslab

    Oh, really Pawi? Why don’t you provide the Korean language link that shows sympathy to an E-2 visa holder/non-Kyopo VS any Hagwon or recruiter. I’ll be waiting…
    Although the Anti-Graft and corruption group suggested 7 Koreans be charged with human smuggling, they also want Philippine Immigration Officers to be immediately suspended.
    When has the Korean media printed(in Korean language) or sought the immediate suspension of any Korean Immigration Officer due to the 50%(or thereabouts) E-2 visa holders who teach illegally while Korean Hagwons decide they want to apply/pay for their visa to make it all legal…?
    “MANILA, PHILIPPINES – IMMIGRATION OFFICERS (IOs) who allowed the illegal entry of 70 South Korean minors caught illegally studying in an English language school in Lemery, Batangas should be immediately placed under 90-day preventive suspension pending investigation, an anti-graft group said yesterday.
    Leaders of the Center for Anti-Graft and Corruption Prevention, Inc. (The Center) said that IOs who are responsible for the unlawful admission of the 70 minors into the country can be criminally liable for human smuggling, a violation to provisions of the Philippine Immigration Act (PIA) of 1940, and to the provisions of Republic Act 3019 also known as the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.”

  • seouldout

    I’m w/ goldensky.

    Maybe I’m a bit too cautious, but if I were sending my child to a third-world country I think I’d make sure that my kid’s passport made it to the country’s embassy and the proper visa was issued before I let the kid board the flight. I just might even look inside the passport to verify the existence of a large, multi-coloured stamp with the dates of validity and the official’s signature. That’s about 6 seconds of effort, and for my kid I can do that. The hagwon’s “괜찮아” visa wouldn’t suffice.

    Anyway, I have first-hand knowledge of how things get done in the PI, and for a nominal fee just about any bureaucratic issue can be satisifactorily resolved. I’m sure thousands and thousands of Koreans have studied there w/o obtaining the proper visa. Suspect the back story is another, better-connected school that may actually has a licence picked up the phone and complained about a competitor encroaching on their turf.

    Just wait until the parents find out that US beef was served daily in the cafeteria!

    They should be so fortunate.

    It’s Chinese “beef”.

  • Sonagi

    I wonder how many of these parents are dumping their kids overseas under the guise of learning English. At the school where I worked in China, some of the Korean kids in the dorm were in China alone while their parents remained in Korea. Some parents managed at least one visit during the school year while others only ever saw their elementary and middle-school aged children when they returned home during the long winter break when the dorm was closed. One of our dorm residents included a FIRST grader and his 7th grade sister. Their father worked in the city, but he had a drinking problem and rarely saw the kids. The mom remained in Korea with a high school sib preparing to sit the university entrance exam. When our Korean liaison had a talk with her about her children’s situation, the mom admitted that prior to coming to China, the children were mostly left by themselves in Korea because of dad being in China and mom working. Another elementary student was the son of a fairly well-known TV actress and wealthy businessman, both of whom lived in Korea. He was a great kid, smart and well-mannered, but being alone and having a large spending account, he started hanging out with older Korean students from other schools, who introduced him to drugs. Two high school sons of a gangster would take other students as young as 13 on whoring and drinking binges on the weekends. Good on the Philippines government for cracking down on these shady schools.

  • YangachiBastardo

    the day Korea do away with the Hagwon system will be a great day for the country…

    Great story Sonagi. Actually as a strict (to the point of paranoia) Italian dad i am often indeed a bit shocked by how Korean parents seem to be easy about their kids spending tons of time on their own. I understand indipendence being a good thing and i understand the street crime level being much lower than the West, but the sight of first graders going back home from school without any adult around always leaves me a bit perplexed

  • Darth Babaganoosh

    You say the Korean party is to blame, but which one, the parents for sending their kids to another country, without it would seem, checking to see if it was even legal, or the Korean hogwon for allowing these children to enter a foreign country and risk such consequences all in the name of education, sorry meant profit?

    You are forgetting the Philippine Immigration officers who allowed the children entry into the country without either a guardian or the special permit required for a minor to enter alone. One student, MAYBE I could see happening; it’s not improbable that ONE student falls through the cracks or whatever. But 100+ students without visas, permission to enter alone, or guardians? No, some of the Philippine Immigration were complicit in this shitstorm; the only question is how far up the chain did they know? And how much did they pocket to look the other way?

  • SomeguyinKorea

    Well, on a side note, it’s apparently official: after threatening to do it for years, the government has decided that hagwons can’t have English language kindergartens, or any kindergarten for that matter, anymore. Saw it on the news last night.

  • Andrew

    The Joong-ang editorial does seem to ignore that the companies are Koreans, and the managers charged are Koreans.

  • keith

    No licences, Filipino teachers and Korean owners. The business owners don’t apparently have licences to own a business there. I don’t like Yahoo news, but looking elsewhere…

    GMA are carrying the same story:

    It is interesting how the Korean press covering it fail to mention that it seems a Korean corruption-illegal problem more than a Filipino problem.

    And amazing is the fact that if you read the stories in the Filipino news the Batangas area seems a bit of a very sketchy place indeed and pretty unsafe. I wouldn’t send a ten year old there, on a dodgy visa for a year, to learn iffy English from a Filipino in a Korean run hagwon in a third world country. It sounds like a recipe for major disaster!

    Those Korean parents should be ashamed of themselves, and the hagwon bosses should do some jail time. Human trafficking would be a good charge, maybe it wouldn’t stick, but illicit business activities and barring the dodgy characters involved from ever having anything to do with children ever again might work as a ‘sentence’? Maybe endangering children (multiple counts) could work to ban the people from working in the business.

    I’d like to see a journalist really investigate Korean hagwons. In principle I don’t think hagwons are such a bad thing. It’s the way they’re unregulated in crazy ways such as fire codes on the building and general health and safety issues, and over regulated in other ways such as how much they can charge. It’s a messed up system.

  • Darth Babaganoosh

    it seems a Korean corruption-illegal problem more than a Filipino problem

    Except for the matter of Filipino officials who allowed the unaccompanied children into the country in the first place, without the documentation allowing them to do so.

    I’d like to see a journalist really investigate Korean hagwons. In principle I don’t think hagwons are such a bad thing. It’s the way they’re unregulated in crazy ways such as fire codes on the building and general health and safety issues, and over regulated in other ways such as how much they can charge. It’s a messed up system.

    Give the Labor actual power and the teeth to back up that power (much like Immigration, NTS, NPS, and NHIC can slap major fines on businesses), and you SHOULD see a marked improvement in how hagwons in Korea operate. But when the LB gives their “ruling” on a labour complaint, but can’t actually enforce it except by whinging and saying Please a lot, where is the incentive for hagwons to change when they know they can just ignore anything the LB says, hoping the complainant doesn’t take things further to small claims court?

    Hagwons operated in other countries, obviously, have to be regulated by that country. Just as in Korea, the Philippines (and China, too) could do it if they got off their ass and enforced their regulations and laws.

  • Robin

    Living here in the Philippines and seeing all of the Koreans operating businesses here, it’s interesting to get a perspective on this issue from Korea…. to be fair there are actually a number of Korean-operated schools here which are legitimate, licensed operators. But, there are dozens if not hundreds of illegal ones and they spawn a huge underground economy of agents, visa fixers, recruiters, dormitory operators, printing presses which print fake textbooks, grocery stores, doctors, dentists, etc, etc. It is all a cash business. Teachers, many of whom are actually unemployed nurses or similar, are paid less than US$2 per hour in cash, no contracts, no security. So the Philippines is losing out on a lot of potential tax revenues, business licence fees, etc.
    Obviously there is widespread awareness of all of this and also some complicity on the official side, not surprising given the size of this business. So although it would not be too difficult to impose controls and stop this from happening, there isn’t much interest in doing so. Occasionally they will make an example of someone, as in this case here, it remains to be seen if there will be a serious effort.
    We have opened a start-up ESL school in Manila and although we are not Koreans, would also like to tap into the Korean market which is obviously quite lucrative. We’d like to do it legally and market the school as a legal operation, but it can take up to 6 months to get all the necessary paperwork. So while that is ongoing, we’d be quite happy to see all of these illegal schools closed down, or at least regulated.

  • kindrid

    I am living in the Philippines and the entire story just does not add up. If the Koreans did not have a student visa, they must be in the Philippines on a normal tourist visa. A normal tourist visa is a lot more expensive than a student visa especially if you stay in the Philippines for more than say four months. If longer than two months it is about the same but you have the hassle of obtaining a student visa that is available only in Manila. I can’t believe the government of the Philippines cares that a foreign student is studying with a tourist visa because it is the student that ends up paying more for visas in most cases. The student visa is designed to encourage foreign students to come to the Philippines and study not regulate behavior. However, the stated purpose of tourists visa is pleasure, business, or health. So, technically someone is in violation if they come to study and did not get a student visa. This seems like a shake down for money by the Philippines. Are these courses short two week long courses? If that is true, the student would not pay for a visa because a stay in the Philippines is free for visits less than 21 days. It seems like the Philippines wants visa fees from people taking short courses and is busting people over a technicality.