Foreign students not deterred by political tension

Heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula over nuclear arms tests and military manoeuvres – and the war of words between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – have not so far affected the numbers of students going to South Korea to study at foreign branch campuses.

On the contrary, South Korean ‘soft power’ appears to be fuelling interest in studying in that country, universities on the ground say.

The Songdo Global University Campus in Korea's Incheon Free Economic Zone has branch campuses from State University of New York at Stony Brook or SUNY, George Mason University or GMU in Virginia, and the University of Utah in the US, and Ghent University in Belgium.

They operate joint programmes, delivering degrees from their home campuses, with buildings and other costs paid for by the South Korean and local Incheon governments under agreements stretching from five to 10 years.

But with the majority of students at the campuses of SUNY, GMU and Ghent University either Koreans, or Koreans with foreign passports, the universities say the rising tensions have not so far impacted on students wanting to attend their Korean campuses.

“When you go to Korea, people are not shaking in their boots,” says Gbemi Disu, director for global strategy at GMU in Virginia and previously chief operating officer of GMU’s Korea campus, which opened in March 2014. “In Korea there is an awareness that North Korea has been a looming threat for 40 years, so there is an acceptance by people there,” she says of the heightened tensions over North Korea’s nuclear arms tests earlier this year.

But Disu notes that there might even have been a shift towards the Korean campus in the age of Trump. “Now we are constantly talking to countries that are looking at our Asia campus for partnerships versus the United States campus,” she says.

US students still coming

But even study abroad students from the US have not been deterred, Disu says. “For the first time we sent over 40 students who chose to go to Korea for the fall semester. This is our largest class ever, even with all this [political] noise,” she notes, pointing out that these student applications began after Trump became president in January and the North Korean missile launches in February and March, which ratcheted up tensions on the Korean peninsula.

GMU’s home state of Virginia has one of largest Korean-American populations. “We work very closely with the Korean organisations here and we’ve gone out to high schools that have a Korean curriculum,” Disu says.

Within East and Southeast Asia, which are strong areas for student recruitment, Korean pop groups, movies and television dramas, and computer games are hugely popular, with Korean cosmetics brands, and other better-known products such as Samsung smart phones, also well known.

“We see the proliferation of K-pop, K-drama and amazing commercial products. It has prompted a new wave across the world of seeing South Korea as a very modern, hip country. In Southeast Asia everybody wants to go to Korea,” Disu says.

Matthew Whelan, vice-president for strategic initiatives at Stony Brook University, said last year was the largest class brought in to SUNY’s Korean campus to date. “We have not seen yet a significant decline in applications over last year. But it is still very early.”

Korean students’ main entry term is in March each year. “We will probably know more as we get into December, but I have not seen any early indication that there is any decline in applications. Last I looked, we were running slightly ahead of last year,” Whelan said, declining to give exact figures.

The SUNY Korean campus which opened in 2012 with a US$5 million a year subsidy from the Korean government and Incheon authorities, teaches technology, computer science, engineering and applied mathematics.

It currently has some 400 students, mostly undergraduates. Some 80% are of Korean heritage looking for an English-taught degree, with the rest mainly from Asia and Africa, including from Zimbabwe and Burkina Faso. “They see Korea as an incredibly modern technology-driven economy,” Whelan says.

Threat of terror is relative

“There were families who were worried at first but once the students came to Korea, their worries were gone,” said Taejun Han, vice-president at the Ghent University Global Campus in Incheon. “Once you are in Korea you don’t actually feel the seriousness of the possibility of war breaking out.”

In addition, Belgium, where the home campus is situated, has had its own share of terror attacks, he notes, including the two suicide bombings in March 2016 at Brussels airport and on the city’s subway system, killing 32 people in all.

Around a dozen professors are based permanently in South Korea, but the Korean situation has not had an impact on the willingness of the 20 or so professors flying in from Ghent each year to teach. “They have no problem to stay with us in Korea for 3 to 4 weeks to teach our students,” Han told University World News.

Disu also said GMU, one of the largest universities in the US state of Virginia with some 36,000 students, sends students to other countries that have had security problems.

“We send students to Paris all the time and to Marseille, and look what happened in Nice. You could have been in the UK and gone to Manchester, you could have gone to the concert in Vegas,” she said.

She was referring in turn to the Paris attacks in January 2015 on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, killing 17 people, and in August and November 2015, the latter killing 130 and injuring hundreds more; the January 2016 attack in Marseille; the 14 July 2016 attack in Nice when a truck ploughed through a crowd, killing 86 people and injuring 458 others; the attack on 22 May this year in Manchester, UK, where dozens were killed at the Ariana Grande concert; and the mass shooting at an open air concert in Las Vegas in early October, killing 59 people and injuring more than 500.

“Either our students are extremely adventurous or they recognise that even in the United States safety has become a relative term,” she says.

Disu does not discount the possibility that the number of applicants to the Korean campus might have been higher. But to put it in context she points to a drop in applications to US universities since Trump became president, particularly in the wake of the US travel ban.

“I don’t want to paint a rosy picture,” she says. “We don’t know yet what the big impact will be. Is a war going to break out [in Korea]?

"We continue to study the State Department’s warnings to be safe. We have our protocols in place and we count on students to make an educated choice – they have an option to start in the Asia campus or come to the US campus,” she says of the four-year programmes in economics, global affairs, management, finance and accounting which allow students to spend a year at the partner campus.


The GMU Korean campus, which opened in 2013 with a US$2.7 million subsidy per year from the authorities, has 350 students from some 29 countries. Some 80% are Korean or of Korean heritage with foreign passports, but students come from several different countries in Asia, including Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam, and even from Africa, including Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Ghent University opened in Incheon in 2014 and now has 185 students. Its main selling point is that its home campus ranks very highly, above Korea’s top universities, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon and Seoul National University, which helps it to recruit students, and Han pushes the point that the university is very strict about maintaining the high quality of its home university, the top university in Belgium.

The Ghent campus in Korea offers programmes in biotechnology, environmental technology and food technology. “It is quite a coincidence that the Korean government and the Incheon city government have proclaimed that biotechnology and the environment are the most important disciplines for the development of Korea,” he notes, adding that this increases internship opportunities for students with companies in the Incheon zone.

But the universities say it is nonetheless a struggle to meet their own targets for recruitment, with SUNY saying it has fallen somewhat short of its projections, in part because it has taken longer for new courses to be approved by the Korean authorities. “Students don’t come to us, we have to go and find them,” SUNY’s Whelan admits.

SUNY Korea’s aim is to have 1,000 students over the next five years, he says, but adds that if they recruit from a broad range of countries, they can insulate themselves from country-specific risks.

With Incheon situated close to China, the universities in Songdo say they want to recruit more Chinese students “We go to the north-western parts of China to recruit,” says GMU’s Disu. “People there are either of Korean heritage or they are familiar with Korea.” She adds that the GMU campus hopes to have some 2,000 students within 10 years.

Ghent University believes it has an advantage in China in that it is not a US university, citing the Trump effect. Although relations have been strained – with China’s anger at South Korea’s decision to deploy the US missile shield system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense in South Korea, close to the North Korean border, leading to Chinese restrictions against South Korean companies and organisations – it has not affected Ghent.

“We are considered a Belgian university, not a Korean one,” Han says.