Incheon’s international higher education plans expand

Plans to open more branches of foreign universities in South Korea’s Incheon Free Economic Zone – IFEZ – are back on track, say managers of the development. The United States-based George Mason University and University of Utah, and Ghent University in Belgium, are planning to open branches at Incheon this year.

This anticipated progress follows delays sparked by national education regulations, involving the slow release of approvals for the establishment of overseas-based institutions at Incheon, near the capital Seoul.

Policy improvement

To overcome future regulatory logjams, in December 2013 the government announced plans to allow local universities to partner with foreign universities and set up joint campuses in the flagship trade zone.

“From the policy perspective, we will be having a more favourable environment to attract premier foreign universities and students,” said Dohee Kwon, communications manager at Incheon Global Campus, which wants to host 20 branches of overseas-based institutions:

“A foreign school is now allowed to…establish a joint legal entity with a domestic school in [South] Korea… In addition, summer school programmes organised by foreign institutes in free economic zones will be open to domestic students as well.”

Incheon Global Campus or IGC, previously known as Songdo Global Campus, is currently home to just two higher education institutions.

One is the State University of New York or SUNY, which launched courses at Incheon in 2012. Joonho Hong, director of education planning for the IFEZ, said SUNY was currently only operating for first and second year university students. “Another 600 to 700 fourth and fifth year students will join over the next few years.”

In March 2013 SUNY launched its first undergraduate degree programme in technology and science, in addition to two graduate degrees in technology and society, and computer science. It will begin offering an undergraduate degree in computer science from the autumn.

It has worked alongside Underwood International College, or UIC, the Incheon branch of South Korea’s Yonsei University, which opened in 2004, attracted by Incheon’s “promising future”, according to Dr Hyungji Park, the college's dean.

“We have a student body of around 900 students, including 240 students from all around the globe,” she said.

“For Yonsei and UIC, the region’s position as a hub for East Asia, its proximity to [Seoul’s international Incheon] airport, and its hosting of international organisations as well as multi-national corporations and high-tech research institutes, all offered intriguing opportunities for collaborative research and education.”

Incheon Global Campus wants Incheon-based institutions to provide higher education to both local and international students as part of the government’s plan to further internationalise and diversify the economic zone. Its managers hope to see 10 institutions in place by 2019.


Established in 2003, Incheon is South Korea’s first free economic zone. The region is best known as Seoul’s port, hosting one of the nation’s major harbours, a key trading port with China – South Korea's biggest trade partner.

With many world-class organisations such as the United Nations-affiliated Green Climate Fund and the World Bank establishing South Korean headquarters in the Incheon zone, it was a natural step to develop international education facilities there too, said Dr Johng-Ihl Lee, director of university planning and operations at SUNY Korea.

“IFEZ’s geographical advantage and its vibrant business environment are attracting a growing number of international corporates and organisations,” he added. There is also a hefty government-funded budget of South Korean KRW1.72 trillion (US$1.62 billion),

Jong-Cheol Lee, IFEZ’s commissioner, said the government expected that “increased foreign investments” in zone businesses would follow the establishment of new university branches, “as more talented individuals are readily available”.

Hong explained that the IGC wanted to see 20,000 students ultimately studying on the campus. He told University World News: “Step one, to be completed by 2015, is to open our campus with five partner foreign universities and a capacity for 5,000 students.”

These would include branches of George Mason University, the University of Utah and Ghent University along with SUNY and most likely Russia’s Saint Petersburg State Conservatory.

He continued: “Step two, to be completed by 2018-19, is to add another five partner universities as well as capacity for another 5,000 students. And for step three, which is still in planning, we will have 10 schools with room for another 10,000 students.”


Such plans do seem ambitious given previous setbacks the project has faced.

In 2010, one of the initially announced foreign partners – America’s University of Delaware – withdrew from the project, for instance.

In addition, the fact that new curricula and programmes were being established at Incheon is generating some administrative hurdles, she explained.

For instance, under South Korean law, “foreign universities should have a 3+1 curriculum – where students spend three years studying in Korea, and then one year abroad at the home campus. But George Mason University requires a 2+2 curriculum, so there was some delay in arranging the approval."

According to Kwon, other delays were due to local legislation. “There were a couple of years of delay due to administrative processes. To be a tenant university in IGC, it is necessary for foreign universities to get approval through the ministry of education as a final licenser,” she said.

"With no precedence of hosting premier higher institutions in [South] Korea, we have had to take very careful and deliberate procedures to make it successful… Each administrative delay means another six to 12 months of waiting.”

Pace to pick up

Kwon does, however, expect the pace to pick up: “We have been building up our experience and we expect the time for the approval process to shorten later on.”

She said George Mason University would open at Incheon in March 2014, offering programmes in economics and business administration. Meanwhile, Ghent University will open in autumn 2014 to offer courses in bioengineering – namely bachelor courses in food technology, environmental technology and molecular biotechnology.

The University of Utah is also planning to open this autumn, she said, offering undergraduate programmes in communications, psychology and social work as well as a graduate programme in public health.

Other potential future partners include the US-based University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Russia's Saint Petersburg State Conservatory and China's prestigious Tsinghua University, said Kwon.