South Korea – Future Hub of International Education?

K-Education is on the rise in the global education market. Since the early 2000s, the number of international students in Korean higher education has increased every year. In 2004, there were about 17,000 of them. By 2019, that number surged to 160,000, showing about a nine-fold increase. During the same period, its neighbor Japan saw about a 2.6-fold increase, from 117,000 in 2004 to 299,000 in 2018.
The vast majority of international students in Korea come from other Asian countries. Students from Asia accounted for 91% of all international students studying in degree or language programs in Korean higher education institutions in 2019. Next in the ranking were Europe (3.9%), North America (2.5%), Africa (1.7%), and South America (0.6%).
One trend from recent years is the diversification of nationalities among Asian international students. In 2013, 3 out of 5 international students in Korea were from China. But recently, a few countries in Southeast and Central Asia have been sending more of their students to South Korea. Vietnam, which had sent around 3,000 students to Korea in 2013, sent a whopping 37,400 students in 2019, accounting for 23% of all international students, compared to China’s 43%. International students from Uzbekistan also went through a similar rate of growth, from 600 in 2013 to 7,400 in 2019.
Original graphic utilizing data from the Korean Ministry of Education.
South Korea’s Stake in International Education
In recent years, the South Korean government has been making a stronger push to attract more international students. According to its 2015 press release, the Ministry of Education said it would increase the number of international students to 200,000 by 2023. Its plans include recommending universities to open “bilingual courses” that provide course materials in English and expanding government scholarship programs to finance international students’ tuition.
From the government perspective, international education can promote public diplomacy between Korea and its neighboring countries. The Ministry of Education, in the 2015 report, said it intends to use the Sejong Language Institute, a Korean equivalent of the Confucius Institute of China, to connect those interested in Korean language and culture with the country’s higher education institutions. It is also pushing for focusing its recruitment strategy on ASEAN nations, Africa, and the Commonwealth of Independent States, whose younger populations reportedly share a keen interest in learning about Korea.
South Korea has other real stakes in promoting international education. One among them is a looming crisis in its domestic higher education market, caused by both policy failure and demographic shift. The number of Korean universities skyrocketed in the late 1990s, after the replacement of the existing university approval system with a new law, which allows the establishment of a university as long as it can prove it meets certain conditions. The absence of a strict guideline to control the size of student bodies also induced these newly established institutions to recruit larger classes. Despite an absolute increase in the number of those seeking higher education, many large-sized universities, especially those located outside of the Seoul metropolitan area, have failed to meet their maximum student quota.
International education, from policymakers’ perspective, is an antidote to the impending crisis in the domestic higher education market. The demand for higher education may decrease in the next few decades, as the country’s birth rate shrivels at an alarming rate. In 2018, the total fertility rate in Korea fell below 1.00 per woman for the first time in its history. As the case of the United States shows, the declining fertility rate may lead to a significant decrease in prospective college students, hitting less selective universities the hardest. Coupled with a surplus of education providers, the decline in the number of education consumers may cause a mismatch of demand and supply in the Korean education market. People say establishing a new pipeline of international students with countries that have a larger size of youth population is one way to prepare for this future.
Challenges Moving Forward
Few roadblocks are ahead in South Korea’s plan to attract more international students. Despite its promise to foster a “bilingual” environment in higher education, even some top universities struggle to accommodate international students who lack Korean fluency. Courses supposed to be taught in English often provide lectures and course materials in Korean, causing confusion among international students. International students also find it challenging to stay on top of on-campus news about job recruitment and collegiate events, lowering their satisfaction for Korean higher education.
The issue of illegal immigration also complicates the country’s plan to become a new hub of international education. According to the Ministry of Education data, 2018 saw about 12,500 international students illegally staying in Korea – among them, 63% were from Vietnam. Korean students also have their concerns over the rise of international education. Some argue international students with limited Korean language fluency struggle to participate in class discussions or team assignments, bringing down the standards of higher education. As an emerging destination for international students, South Korea will be facing unique challenges of a receiving country in the global education market.

Won-Gi Jung is a former intern with the Korea Chair at CSIS.