Foreign student numbers grow a record 19% in a year

South Korea has seen record numbers of foreign students enrolling in its universities despite recent tensions on the Korean peninsula, but this has been accompanied by a doubling in the number staying on illegally after their student visas expire.

The number of foreign students grew at a record high of almost 19% last year, according to a report from the National Institute for International Education under the education ministry. The number has rocketed to 142,205 this April from 123,850 the previous year, and compares to 12,000 foreign students 15 years ago.

According to the report released in late September, 70,232 of the total are in degree programmes while the rest are in non-degree programmes, particularly Korean language courses at universities, which has seen demand rocket due to the popularity of Korean cultural products overseas – particularly Korean film and drama, and pop music, known as K-pop, which has a following throughout North East and Southeast Asia and beyond.

Numbers enrolling in Korean studies programmes in Europe and North America have also been increasing, which fuels the demand for places on Korean university programmes. Last year Korean for the first time became a subject in the Baccalauréat, the school leaving exam in France.

In the United States the number of students learning Korean increased by 14% between 2013 and 2016, even as the number of US students learning Chinese and Japanese fell over the same period.

Although South Korea has a goal of attracting 200,000 foreign students by 2023 to plug a gap in enrolment in Korean universities as the population declines, the foreign student boon has a downside.

Rise in overstayers

A report produced last week by a member of the National Assembly, Kim Hae-Young of the ruling Democratic Party, showed that those staying on illegally after their student visas expire rocketed from 5,652 to 11,176 last year – an increase of almost 98%.

“Many [Korean] universities now seek to bring in more international students as the number of Korean students keeps dropping,” Kim said, referring to the country’s demographic decline. “But it seems like they should introduce programmes to support international students after they get their degrees in Korea.”

Kim said universities often overlook foreign students overstaying their visas because they need the income from tuition fees – foreign students pay higher fees than Koreans – and to plug the gap as the local cohort of student age declines. However, Kim cautioned against solely blaming the universities, suggesting the problem of overstaying was a wider one.

The rise in the overstaying rate – which is not just confined to students but has hit other sectors such as construction workers – has caused a dilemma for a government that wishes to appear welcoming to foreign students while at the same time not tolerant of breaches of immigration rules.

In what amounts to a limited amnesty, the Korea Immigration Service earlier this month urged foreigners who have overstayed to leave voluntarily by March 2019 “regardless of their period of overstay”.

Some are drawn by higher wages than they can earn in their home countries, but many students stay on in jobs to pay tuition fee debt and living costs which can be high in Korea – particularly in the capital Seoul which has a large number of universities. According to official statistics, 57.5% of foreign students are in Seoul.

And according to official statistics, 90% of international students in Korea are self-financing, with around 842 students on scholarships from their home countries, and 3,175 on Korean government scholarships. Around 7,700 receive financial assistance from their universities in Korea.

Working students

Current visa rules allow undergraduate students to work up to 20 hours a week during term time and unlimited hours in term vacations. But foreign students must provide a detailed work schedule to the institution where they are enrolled, which in turn returns the records to the relevant government department. Students on language programmes can seek a work permit six months after the programme starts.

A Chinese student studying full time at the university on the island of Jeju – a popular tourist resort in Korea – said she worked long hours as a hotel chambermaid. “All the Chinese students are working,” she told University World News, most of them in restaurants. She admitted she did not report her working hours to the university. “If I tell them, I cannot work more than 20 hours,” she says.

“Many of my friends work more than 20 hours and because they are working in restaurants at night they are always too tired to go to class,” she says, noting that the absentee rate for foreign students at her university, which she would not name to preserve her own anonymity, was high.

According to official statistics, Chinese students make up 80% of foreign students enrolled in universities on Jeju Island. But moonlighting is not confined to any particular national group.

According to the statistics released earlier this year for April 2017 to April 2018, Chinese students are the largest foreign student group in South Korea, with some 68,184 enrolled in universities – almost half the total – followed by Vietnamese at 14,614.

But the proportion of Chinese students is down by almost 7% on the previous year, despite a slight increase in actual numbers. The failure to match the growth from other source countries may be in part due to tensions between China and South Korea until earlier this year over Korea’s THAAD missile programme which led to a Chinese boycott of Korean companies and tour groups and a drop in the number of Chinese students on Korean studies programmes within China.